DANIEL WILKS sinks his teeth into the new RPG from the cre­ators of Life Is Strange

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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

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