DANIEL WILKS sinks his teeth into the new RPG from the creators of Life Is Strange
Panic on the streets of London
“I had a little bird, its name was Enza. I opened the window, and in-flu-enza.” This was a children’s rhyme in 1918. It was a big year for the world. Armistice Day saw an end to the hostilities of WW1, legendary pioneering comedian Spike Milligan was born, great strides were made in women’s suffrage and the Spanish Flu pandemic spread worldwide, eventually killing around 5% of the global population. London, 1918 isn’t the happiest of places. Due to the war, news is censored heavily in an effort to keep up the spirits of those at home, the financial drain of the war and the lack of any kind of safety net leaves the poor of the city not only destitute but malnourished as well. In Dontnod Entertainment’s latest game, vampires are also at large. What a time to be alive.
“1918 was an interesting setting to launch a story about vampires. It was an era of high contrast: technical progress vs. industrialization of war, progress of science vs. religious beliefs, crumbling empires vs. rising revolutions (communism, feminism, anarchism, anti-colonialism),” says Stéphane Beauverger, narrative director on Vampyr. “It resonates with the duality within Jonathan we want to portray. It’s an era of strong social and societal changes, while millions of people died during the war and from the Spanish Flu (the worst pandemic ever, according to historians). That was a perfect setting to tell the story of a scientist, a good man who believed in science and social progress to reach a new golden age, who is suddenly turned into a supernatural and unholy creature. In one night, Jonathan goes from the light to the everlasting darkness. That is quite a shift of paradigm, even for a brilliant mind!”
Jonathan Reid, is a doctor and former soldier turned vampire by a patient thought to have been suffering from Spanish Flu. How does a man of science and medicine, dedicated to his Hippocratic Oath balance being a healer and a blood sucking monster? And why would someone transform a doctor into a vampire – an act that appears to be a deliberate and
calculated move – during the deadliest flu pandemic the world has ever known? Has he been transformed so that he may survive the ravages of the virus and thus have the ability to heal the sick, or has he been transformed into a monster in an effort to curb his attempts to care for the sick? This is only one of the questions at the core of Vampyr.
After looking at various vampire mythologies, ranging from classic gothic materials through to modern day pop-culture vampires like the feral vampires of 30 Days of Night, or the suave deceiver of The Wisdom of Crocodiles, the developers eventually decided on sticking to the more gothic roots of vampires, taking inspiration from Dracula, Frankenstein, Carmilla and their contemporaries. That said, Jonathan doesn’t strictly adhere to the gothic vampire archetype either. He can be charming and seductive, using his supernatural powers to influence or control those around him, but he’s also a creature of flesh and blood. He can’t turn to mist or into a bat, and he can see himself in a mirror. He shows up in photographs as well, but that isn’t the case for all vampires in the game. There are other vampires in the game, from feral creatures driven by mindless bloodlust, through to the more traditional gothic types, and even the Vulpe – strange lupine creatures related to vampires in some mysterious way. One other significant way Reid departs from vampire lore is the fact that he doesn’t necessarily have to kill.
Blood is a resource in-game, related to vampire powers as well as healing, collected through combat and through killing and draining civilians. How healthy a victim is denotes how strong their blood is – the stronger the blood, the more valuable it is to Reid for learning new vampiric abilities or bolstering abilities he already has. London 1918 is coloured in shades of grey, and the citizens of the city are rendered in the same tones. Nobody is truly innocent and nobody is fully wicked, so it’s up to the player to decide who dies and who lives. Of course, thanks to a crafting system using items picked up in the game world, Jonathan can go through the game without killing anyone, relying on weapons and gear to bolster his abilities rather than the blood of the living. “We thought for a time about a game mechanic that would force the player to take a life each time, as a way to represent the compelling ‘need for blood’ of the vampire,” says Beauverger, “but we finally discarded that option, since we wanted to give the player total responsibility for his actions and decisions. So, no, the player will not endure penalties or turn into an ugly beast if he does not take a life. But since the experience points contained by Londoners’ blood is the best way to level up, each player will strongly be incited to take a life to be able to defeat the more and more dangerous opponents he is going to face.”
Anyone in the city of London can be killed and fed upon. There are no magically invulnerable people and no story restrictions on killing, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a consequence to killing everyone Jonathan comes across. A secretive sect of hunters bent on cleansing the streets of London will be after what passes for Reid’s blood, but they are the least of his problems. Each district of London has a Health Status ranging from clean to hostile. While killing won’t necessarily bring the rating down – killing an abusive drunk may have the opposite effect – for the most part feeding on the inhabitants of a district will progressively lower the health rating of the district, not only spreading the Spanish Flu pandemic but also leaving the way clear for threats of a more supernatural bent. There are four districts in all, not necessarily historically accurate in terms of scale and population, but tonally and thematically accurate instead. “One of our objectives was to offer an authentic depiction of London on a smaller scale, representing every social layer of how living in the city was back then” says Stéphane Beauverger. “How was it to be an immigrant in London in 1918? How was it to be an orphan? How was it to be a demobilised solider? How was it to be very wealthy?”
The districts themselves are labyrinthine, so while not large in terms of virtual square miles, they still manage to cover a great deal of ground, giving players ample opportunity to explore, looking for hidden storehouses of crafting supplies of hideouts in which Jonathan can sleep during the day, hiding from the sun, crafting gear and potions or using the blood of drained victims to expand his vampiric abilities. “London is huge, so we couldn’t feasibly model the entire city. We decided to create four distinct districts which seemed particularly iconic to us,” Beauverger continues. “Whitechapel, the immigrant district. The East End docks, which were very poor back then, corrupted by criminality and gangs. The Hospital, which was very interesting for us because it allows us to place Jonathan in relation to the disease. In this area, he is seen as a doctor, interacting with nurses, heads of department, colleagues and, of course, patients... but the player may kill everyone there. The last district is the West End, which is wealthier. We also added references to accurate historical events or figures (scientific discoveries, famous public figures of that era) in the dialogues, for better immersion. Finally, we took care to use authentic accents to identify each character according to his social background.”
Condensing London down to four distinct areas was no easy task, but like with anything else, it started with research. Likewise, to give Jonathan E. Reid a grounding as a doctor, the team had to delve deep into the science of the time. “We started from historical references - we did a lot of historical research on scientific information, to precisely see what the medical knowledge was like at this time”, says Gregory Szucs, art director for Vampyr. Of course, not all research can be done out of a book, so Szucs travelled to London. “I also spent time in the city, taking a lot of photographs, doing research. I find it very rewarding to work on a place that’s real, somewhere you can visit. We’re definitely using some artistic license, but there’s so much wonderful Georgian and Victorian architecture in London, and even in the poorer neighbourhoods, there are amazing buildings. The glamour and the squalor, it’s all in there in London.”
Each district has a number of key figures that, whilst aren’t necessarily integral to the story, have something to contribute to the narrative of Vampyr. Each of these
nobody is truly innocent and nobody is fully wicked, so it’s up to the player to decide who dies and who lives
characters has a number of secrets or pieces of information that the player can uncover through a variety of means. Some information can be gathered by observing the character from a distance, talking to the character or dominating them using vampiric powers. The more information you have on a character the more valuable their blood becomes in terms of XP. It’s a nice touch – even those more interested in the action than the roleplaying aspects of Vampyr will be encouraged to talk to and interact with characters rather than just killing them to maximise XP, and those interested in the roleplaying aspect can make their feeding decisions based on full details.
While Jonathan does cut something of a romantic figure in his long coat, the blood sucking of Vampyr is not in the least bit sexy. There are no gentle sparkle vampires here, rather creatures that kill to survive. When Reid kills a victim, it’s a swift, brutal and bloody attack, and thanks to the power of the blood, players get to hear the last thoughts going through the mind of the victim. They wonder what will happen to their children or loved ones, whether they deserved their fate, whether they will make it to heaven. The vampire may end up with a belly full of sweet blood, but it leaves a bitter taste. “I think it would have been a mistake to glamourise death and violence in Vampyr, which can be a gruesome game, about a gothic theme and deploying a rather tragic story,” explains Stéphane Beauverger. “We spent a lot of energy to make the player feel torn when deciding to take an innocent life, coldly, as a predator. It would have diminished that questioning if we had showed a ‘cool’ scene. So, yes, death is bloody and brutal in Vampyr. But that does not mean there will not be any romance or more peaceful moments in the game.”
Vampyr is an action RPG, and as such, Jonathan Reid is a man of action with a suite of skills that echo both his past as a soldier and present as a vampire. We’ve only seen a smattering of abilities so far, but they definitely give us a good idea of what to expect from the finished game. Reid has senses that allow him to eavesdrop on other characters from a distance, allowing him to see and hear events without being spotted. He can dash short distances in what is essentially a short range teleport, allowing him to quickly dash around a field of combat or to access areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach. He can learn to be like smoke to sneak around unseen, avoiding combat or the eyes of the wary for short periods of time, and he can learn how to unleash his bestial side and go into a short term rage in combat. There are four active skill slots – Defensive, Aggressive, Tactical and Ultimate – and four passive skill slots – Body, Blood, Bite and Science. How players level these skills determines the type of vampire Jonathan is and how his abilities can be used in battle. According to Phillippe Moreau, game director on Vampyr, “We had some cool ideas of supernatural powers, and from that we created a fighting system that would make the player feel like they have a lot of power. Vampyr is RPG-oriented and we chose to let the player decide what kind of vampire he will be by offering many different abilities and skills. Then, depending on their playstyle, they can play as a shadow vampire, discreet and stealthy; as an instinct vampire, much more brutal; or as a blood vampire, who takes control of the blood of his enemies to enhance his own abilities.”
Vampyr is a vastly different game to what we’ve seen from Dontnod before. The developer only has two previous games in its stable, Remember Me and Life is Strange, a third-person action adventure in a cyberpunk world and an adventure game with time manipulation mechanics respectively. They may seem unrelated to a tale of a London vampire doctor during the Spanish Flu, but according to Moreau, we are wrong. “In a way, we can consider that Vampyr is the child of Dontnod’s first two projects,” he says. “We return to game mechanics based on fighting and confrontation, as in Remember Me, and at the same time we take again the mechanics of the choices and consequences freely left to the players, as in Life is Strange.” While we didn’t like the combat of Remember Me, what we’ve seen of Vampyr combat so far, it looks vastly improves, with an attack and dodge cadence reminiscent of the Souls games or Bloodborne, combining brutal melee attacks with a firearm-based damaging stun and various supernatural abilities. The likeness to Life is Strange is a little easier to discern, with players constantly being forced to make difficult choices and then live with the consequences of those decisions. Moreau continues, “By choosing to make a game in which players embody Jonathan Reid - a vampire doctor who constantly has the choice between healing or killing the people he meets - we put the notion of choice back at the heart of the game, and back to what is the peculiarity of the mythological figure of the vampire: that of a predator who chooses his prey in all conscience and in all duplicity.”
Stéphane Beauverger echoes the sentiments of the game director when it comes to choice, but has more to say on the subject of the protagonist, and the lasting appeal of the vampire. “Vampires are among the coolest of monsters. It is quite a universal myth: there are legends about blood-drinking creatures all over the world, from Japan to South America. To me, it’s probably due to their inner duality: seducer/killer, clever/salvage, cold/sensitive, etc. Vampires are perfect embodiments of the Eros vs. Thanatos conflict.”
Vampyr emerges from the shadows to feast on your wallet on June 5th.
when Reid kills, thanks to the power of the blood, players get to hear the last thoughts going through the mind of the victim