RPG Autopsy #6: Vampyr (Part Six – Redchapel)

(Welcome to part six of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you missed part one, you can find it here. Today we’ll be hunting down fellow vampire Lady Ashbury’s blackmailer, making our way to Whitechapel, and painting the town red.)

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If we want answers about our vampiric condition we’re going to have to help Lady Ashbury deal with her blackmail problem. First, though, we need to figure out who the blackmailer even is.

We start our investigation by chatting to Harriet Jones – a horrible old gossip who tells us that a strange man has been cavorting with one of the nurses. Eventually, after talking to some of the nurses, we learn that Nurse Crane has gone to meet someone by the canal. We follow, we eavesdrop, and then we follow her mobster contact into the sewers. We know he’s a mobster because the game’s subtitles call him ‘Mobster’.

But the moment we enter the sewers we hear our Mobster friend being torn limb from limb by some terrible beast, and soon enough we run into that beast – just after entering another of Vampyr’s patent-pending ‘There Is About To Be A Boss Fight Now’ wide open rooms littered with thirty or so skeletons. It’s a big beast, in the sewers, so the game calls it ‘Sewer Beast’.

I’m not sure I can keep up with the terminology here.

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I really enjoy how Nurse Crane literally NEVER changes out of her blod-smeared uniform, whether she’s on call or having a relaxing walk along the canal.

Sewer Beast is tanky, much higher level than us, and very resistant to our blood powers. It’s also the start of Vampyr’s unfortunate trend of ‘bosses whose superpower is the power to ignore inertia’. In other words, it’s a massive, hulking pile of muscles, yet it’s also able to spin 180 degrees mid-swing, in a fraction of a second to punish you for dodging in a way the game decided it doesn’t like.

Most of its attacks are pretty well-telegraphed, and it’s not an awful fight, but it’s an early indication that, wile Vampyr’s combat emulates Bloodborne, it’s nowhere near as slick or well-balanced enough to justify that comparison.

After killing the Sewer Beast, we find the Mobster’s body, alongside a note from Nurse Crane – a voucher for free medical treatment at ‘Darius Petrescu’s house’ in Whitechapel. On our way out of the sewers we also run into a trapped man – Oswald Thatcher. He’s sick, and not worth much XP now – not that I’m thinking of killing him, of course – my vow of vampire pacifism will surely last forever, with no chance that this statement will come back to bite me a few posts down the line.

So we make our way to Whitechapel to find out more – is Nurse Crane our blackmailer? If so, to what end? And what’s the deal with this free clinic?

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A warm welcome from citizens of Whitechapel.

The path to Whitchapel takes us through more than a few bands of skals and vampire hunters, and it’s hard not to notice that the regular enemies are already starting to vastly outlevel us – sometimes by as much as ten levels. Now, regardless of the many fair criticisms one can level against Vampyr’s combat, its hordes tanky, powerful enemies do a great job of constantly pushing the player to feed on innocent citizens for their XP. Which in turn changes that decision from ‘roleplay as good or evil – whichever you like’ into the much more interesting  ‘you can try to do the right thing, but it’ll be difficult, and require great sacrifice’.

I’ll skip over talking to all the citizens of Whitechapel here – just know that as soon as I entered Whitechapel proper I spent another hour or so wandering around and introducing myself to all the NPCs I could find. It’s still engrossing, where most games make NPC conversations dull, and the writing and characterisation are still top notch. Other than that there’s not a huge amount to say.

Eventually, we find Darius Petrescu’s house. When we knock on the door, however, he’s suspicious and doesn’t let us in. Since killing him and sucking the blood from his body is probably not the best plan (right now), we decide to look for a way to convince him to let us in.

By talking to some citizens of Whitechapel – namely dedicated journalist Clayton Darby and irritating poet Richard Nithercott – we find out a little more about Petrescu, and we recover a crumpled, unsent letter to his children back in Romania. Turns out Petrescu is a tireless political activist fighting for the poor and downtrodden of the world – even going so far as to sacrifice his family life, and any hope of ever returning home for the struggle. Eventually, after gathering enough information, we head back to Petrescu’s house.

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We’ll see more of this horrible bastard later.

Since we’re not high enough level yet to mesmerise him, we use our newfound knowledge and appeal to his better nature – we claim we’re also fighting the good fight, and that we just want to talk to Nurse Crane for Purely Innocent Reasons. Soon enough, we’re inside.

We’ve learned a little more about Nurse Crane by now – she was also a member of the Romanian resistance movement against the Austro-Hungarian empire, before fleeing to London after the resistance was crushed (Crane isn’t her real name). Her free clinic also turns out to be just that – an attempt to help London’s poor survive the Spanish Flu epidemic.

When we reach Nurse Crane, we find her trying to help a critically ill patient. What follows is an absolutely stellar scene, as Reid and Crane work together to save the patient, and Reid – suddenly overwhelmed by the sight and smell of fresh blood – desperately struggles to control his vampiric urges.

Reid and Nurse Crane’s voice actors do some of the best work I’ve ever seen in a game, here – the clean professionalism cracked by stress and fear. The defeated-yet-accusatory tone in Reid’s voice when Nurse Crane questions his judgement but offers no alternative of her own. The differences in their reactions when they eventually fail, and lose the patient. It’s all just done so well.

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Despite not really seeing any gorey bits, this scene feels very gross and squishy.

Beside the voice acting, the sound design, the blocking, and the dialogue choices all come together amazingly well. We’re given choices about how to go about saving the patient, and it’s incredibly stressful – how the hell am I supposed to know if a cardiac massage or a dose of Epinephrine is the right choice? But how the hell is Reid supposed to know that in such a stressful, life-or-death situation, even if he is a doctor?

Which leads us to…

THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON: 

A cutscene can (almost) always be handled better with gameplay, even if it’s just a few dialogue choices without significant gameplay or story consequence. What information are you trying to give to the player? How are you trying to make them feel? Clever dialogue choices can (almost) always achieve both these goals much better than a simple cutscene.

This scene could have been a cutscene, but it’s elevated by the player getting involved and making choices. I looked this scene up online – none of your choices actually ‘matter’, in the sense that the patient is going to die regardless of what you do. But that’s not what’s important here. What’s important is that the right application of dialogue choices at the right moments can heighten the experience a cutscene dramatically – make the player feel part of the emotions on screen, rather than simply an observer.

Telltale teaches us this lesson better than anyone. People complain about choices in their games not mattering, but while that’s kind of a fair criticism on the macro-level, their ability to turn what are essentially cutscenes into interactive moments with the introduction of just a few dialogue choices and quick-time events is (or rather was) almost unmatched in the medium.

When I watch Reid struggling with indecision about how to best save a patient, I hope he succeeds. When I’m given that choice (even if I know deep down it probably won’t change anything) I feel that indecision – that rising panic. That’s a thing only games can do, and all it takes is a few extra lines of text.

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Next week we’ll confront Nurse Crane about her blackmailing, and make a very, very big mistake. For now, though – as always,  you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. And if you like RPG Autopsy – why not be lovely by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon?Alternatively, if you hate RPG Autopsy – why not spite me by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon? Find that Patreon here.

 

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