Vampyr and the problem of ludonarrative dissonance

Vampyr is a good game. But it has a bad case of the ol’ ludonarrative dissonance.

If you’re not familiar with the term, it basically means your actions don’t match up with the story. You’ll probably recognise this from most RPGs, where you’re given an urgent quest to save the kingdom without delay, then spend hours grinding low-level baddies and completing side quests with no apparent impact on your ‘urgent’ main quest.

As the protagonist Dr Jonathan Reid, you’re bitten by a vampire at the start of the game and then proceed to spend the rest of it either resisting or giving in to your vampiric tendencies. On more than one occasion, Jonathan expresses outrage at another character, accusing them of cold-blooded murder – yet by the time he’s had that conversation, he’s killed hundreds of people himself. And on another occasion, Jonathan is utterly indignant with a character after he discovers that they’ve been looting corpses – even though that’s exactly what he’s been doing for hours.

These are small moments, but jarring ones – and particularly so because Vampyr does such a good job of creating believable characters and interesting moral questions. The setting is inspired – vampires have always had a strong association with disease, so placing the game in London during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is a clever move. And the people you meet are interesting, well acted and riddled with moral ambiguities. I enjoyed uncovering their stories and completing their side quests.

But as you’re journeying around London to complete missions, you’re confronted with hundreds of vampire hunters and ‘skals’, which are basically feral vampires. A huge amount of the game involves fighting your way through these hordes – and although some reviewers have criticised Vampyr‘s combat, I actually found it quite fun once I’d got used to it. You have several special powers, like a claw sweep, and the ability to bite foes to regain energy if you manage to stun them, along with collectible weapons that you can modify to make more powerful. But the murder rampages you regularly find yourself on don’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the game.

It feels like a there’s a clever, well-written vampire story with swathes of moral ambiguity that’s been Frankensteined with a brawl ’em up. Vampyr is a good game, but its crisis of identity prevents it from being a really great one.

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