Vampyr brings an innovative RPG leveling system to E3

Choose your victims carefully in 1918 London.

In Vampyr, Dontnod's upcoming RPG, you literally suck XP out of the necks of your foes.

During our E3 demo, a developer "mesmerized" a man on the street and led him in a swirling cloud of evil evil darkness to a wooded path, where he then, you know, did the deed. Blood sprayed. The victim fell to the ground, sobbing: "My boy… who will look after him now? I tried. I tried to be good father!!" Then the UI dinged: the player had levelled up.

The only way to gain levels in Vampyr is to accumulate blood, and while you can get it from combat, the most valuable blood in the game comes from random NPCs in the street, each of whom will have their own small side-quests and backstories. Bite Joe-- the poor fellow from the E3 demo-- and his son will be fatherless. Bite a merchant, and his store will be affected. Bite Joe's kid, and all those other relationships will change. Because Joe dies in the demo, "the behavior of the NPCS he was connected to will change forever,” says Philippe Moreau, Vampyr's creative director. "The merchant joe was threatening will now prosper, and his son will now run away, and you can feed on other people and get a different result."

The process of levelling up in Vampyr seems to be mainly focused on researching various NPC's backstories and deciding which of them deserves to be sacrificed to the ravenous demands of your level-up bar. There's actually an entire NPC interface which organizes and accumulates the various facts you learn about the NPCs of London-- your city-- so that you can keep track of who knows who and plan which of them you'll kill. Unlike most RPGs I've played over the last decade, where experience and character progression are almost completely divorced from narrative and choice, Vampyr's entire levelling system has become part of the game's moral choice-making system.

And it seems like one of the major themes in that system of choices is the self-loathing inspired by the protagonist's need to feed. He's a doctor, actually (he fights with what seems to be a comedically gigantic doctor's bonesaw) and he views his vampirism as a disease that needs to be cured. His chief quest in the game is to research the origins of vampirism so that he can figure out how to eradicate it. Meanwhile, the Spanish flu epidemic is in full swing, and people who are exposed to both vampirism and the flu are transforming into wild, feral vampires.

I'm not going to lie: this looks like a game where the protagonist will spend a lot of time agonizing over his vampire guilt and misery. And frankly, since it's a game about vampires, that's what I hoped for: some super dark and overwrought emotions. The demo opened with our hero gazing down at the funeral of a young girl-- a relative of his whom he'd actually killed. Afterwards, a woman vampire in a snazzy Victorian suit asked him how he felt; when he refused to be honest with her, she told him he'd need to open up emotionally or he'd turn into a ravenous fiend. Nice!!

The game features a dialogue wheel pretty similar to the ones in Bioware games-- but this one doesn't seem to have any kind of icon-system telling you what category your choices belong in. To this I also say: nice!! I am a huge fan of unlabelled choices in RPGs-- and for a game where you spend all your time deciding who to unwillingly murder for their XP, morally-ambiguous choice systems seem like a good idea.

But although the choices are all pretty much ambiguous-- and although the game seems pretty much all about making you do objectionable things you don't want to do-- there are "bad outcomes" for the various districts of London which you prowl. Killing too many citizens in a given district, or allowing its infection by the flu to rise, will decrease its overall health score; let it get too low and the district will turn into a charred and disease-ridden feral wasteland full of prowling vampire mutants. I assume this will make more trouble for you, since your character is gonna have to fight them.

Combat in Vampyr is based around melee with your blade and castable abilities that seem to function like magic spells. One spell we saw in the demo involved gigantic evil vampire smoke-hands rising out of the ground to seize an enemy vampire-hunter and impale him on a smoke-spear. We also saw the player teleport with a vampire power to avoid hunters and peacefully explore a level further-- the districts of London are a linked system of open hubs, and you can explore them fairly freely, it seems.

About those vampire hunters: apparently, in the world of Vampyr, vampires have been around for centuries but most people have no idea they exist. Vampire hunters in the game are part of secret order who have been hunting vampires for the same centuries. They roam around in packs in the street, but most people seem to be unaware that you could be a vampire threat to them at all.

The game's interpretation of vampirism seems to be pretty traditional (aside from the magic smoke spells, anyway.) You are apparently vulnerable to various vampire restrictions of lore: you cannot enter homes without an invitation, for example, which may make investigating some potential victims more difficult. In the demo, for example, we saw Joe refuse us entry to his home to meet his son.

In general, I found Vampyr pretty impressive. The city is spooky, the tortured-gothic-murder-man mood is exactly the kind of thing I want from a vampire game, and the idea of tying the level-up system directly into the narrative choices strikes me as very cool-- exactly the kind of thing that RPGs about moral choices should be experimenting with more often. The only disappointing thing I saw was what seemed like a crafting-material-gathering system, where the player kept finding things like "Metal Screw" and "Noble Wood" (??) and "Metal Hunk" in various people's pockets (???) in the middle of urban 20th-century London. Okay, okay-- this kind of thing is definitely something I can get over, since I've gotten over it in basically every other RPG I've ever played. But the rest of Vampyr seems so innovative and story-focused that I was a little surprised Dontnod didn't find a workaround for this particular RPG-awkwardness staple, too.

But: whatever!! I can handle a couple Metal Hunks. At this point, Vampyr has me pretty excited, and I'm glad to see that Dontnod is continuing from strength to strength after Life is Strange. Vampyr will be out in 2017 on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.