Vampyr & Eating NPCs

2020 was something else, wasn’t it? With the pandemic and so much civil unrest, there were parts of the year that seem like a bad dream to me. March marked one year of working from home and I’m one of the lucky ones to have a job that can be done from home. My main hobbies of reading and video games are also inherently solitary ones, so I don’t mind staying inside a lot. But after a year, even I’m starting to go stir crazy. Not helping is that I’ve been playing Dontnod’s Vampyr over the past few months, a game that reflects the pandemic and people’s suffering because of it in a very surreal way. It’s interesting then that the biggest threat to the characters in the game is not the pandemic they face, but the player themselves.

At first glance, Vampyr looks like just a standard pseudo-open world, action RPG. The meat and bones of the game are based around stamina focused combat and exploring London as Johnathan Reid, a doctor turned vampire, while the city is being eaten alive by the effects of the Great War and the Spanish Flu simultaneously. While the setting is fascinating, combat feels clunky and loose, especially in boss fights when it is thrown into focus, the visuals tend to be muddy and character models particularly suffer, and the story is not especially well written, leaving the body of the game feeling malnourished. But the heart of the game is still strong, pumping blood throughout the rest of it and keeping it alive—that being the NPC’s and their lives being subjected to the player’s decisions.

Nearly every NPC in the game can be interacted with and spoken to—all of them have problems they are dealing with, secrets they are keeping, fears, dreams, desires that help them and the city of London both feel alive. They can be killed by Johnathan too, used to feed his vampiric thirst for blood. Feeding on an NPC gives the player a shot of experience points, making it the fastest way to get some quick levels and improve your skills. The trade off is that the character killed is obviously dead, never to be spoken to again, merchants cannot be traded with, and the district’s overall health will suffer. You can also gain experience by completing quests for characters and beating basic mobs and bosses, but the quests and bosses are finite and the common enemies you could grind against give such a pitiful amount of experience that it’s not worth the time. The combat in the game is not complicated enough that you will be at a huge disadvantage if you are under-leveled, but to get a variety of skills and improve them, eating NPCs is by far the most effective way to level up.

The game smartly encourages the player to interact with the story and get to know every character you wish to kill before committing the crime. Every character has aspects of their personality or past that can be discovered through dialogue trees, information learned from other characters, notes and clues scattered around, even spying on them occasionally by using your powerful vampire hearing to listen to their private conversations. Slowly learning about characters through conversations feels natural and makes them feel fleshed out and able to surprise you. A character you initially distrust or dislike turns out to be a good person tried by difficult times. All the while, a character you liked at first might confess to committing some horrible act or hold some disgusting views. It’s up to you as the player to navigate the gray, foggy streets of London and its residents to decide which character is the best (most deserving, in a way) to be fed on. But Johnathan Reid is a man of two opposing ideals and it is also his desire to keep the city alive and healthy.

Before his fate sank its fangs into Johnathan’s neck, he was a doctor and compelled by the Hippocratic Oath to treat all the sick he met. While this is still the case, he is obviously conflicted by his need to feed on the blood of the living, leading to another mechanic in Vampyr. The same way you must converse with and discover all you can about a NPC, you are also incentivized to treat their illnesses. If a character is sick, then their blood is weaker when feeding on them, meaning the player gets less experience points from killing them. The sicker they are, a bigger chunk of experience is missing. So while a player is going around speaking with NPCs and learning more about them, they will also inquire about their medical needs, craft medicines, and dole them out like a health concerned Santa Claus. It’s important to diligently treat the citizens of London and think carefully about who you feed on because the foundation of any community is its citizens and they all have knock-on effects on the city’s health.

It’s easy to think of London in Vampyr as an old cottage and the NPC citizens are the stones in the walls: the more of them you take out, the weaker the house will become overall—susceptible to the outside elements like weather and predators. The city is divided into districts and the health of each is displayed in a scale ranging from sanitized to hostile. A district’s overall health determines the price that merchants will sell their wares at and the amount of enemies that will appear in the streets, along with their levels—the worst the health in a district is, the more high level enemies you will face. During my playthrough, I had only one district fall into hostile and that was due to a choice made about the fate of Aloysius Dawson.

Dawson lived in the wealthy West End district of London. He is the richest man in the city and the pillar of his community. He is terrified of death and thinks his money makes him the most powerful man in the city. A seperatist at heart, he wants to build a wall around the West End to prevent the plague from reaching into the rich homes and let the poorer neighborhoods fight for themselves instead of helping them. I hated Dawson much like I hate the real-life, mega-rich capitalists he is an analogue for. So when it was time to decide if I would turn him into a vampire or let him die, I chose the latter and convinced him to accept his death. He did so and died that night, donating medical supplies and money to the community resulting in everyone returning to a health state for a while. I took advantage of that bump to the city’s health to go on a spree of sorts, eating the NPCs on my list I didn’t like and raking in the experience. When I was finished, the West End had fallen into the critical range and I then learned that meant all NPCs I spared were killed anyways and the district was overrun by Skals and vampire hunters.

Losing all NPCs in the West End was the only real time the game had an emotional impact on me. I felt like garbage because there were characters in the district I truly liked and didn’t want to die. Like Charlotte, the love interest Lady Ashbury’s adopted daughter. I thought Charlotte’s death would have repercussions with Johnathan’s relationship to Lady Ashbury, but it was never mentioned in any future conversations. I still didn’t want her to die though. She was one of the many folks just trying to survive in the chaos of the pandemic. She wasn’t trying to profit off it or willfully ignore the suffering of others or a danger to other citizens like so many others and even Johnathan himself.

Treating patients to keep the city healthy is a great way to show Johnathan as a doctor through gameplay and allowing players to devour NPCs shows his vampiric side. However, I feel the latter is not pushed enough by the game. It would make Johnathan’s melodrama of being torn between wanting to save lives and his need to end them to survive a lot more poignant and relatable if the game really pushed players to eat folks to survive too. As stated above, the game is not difficult enough where being under leveled from abstaining to feed on NPCs is that big of a detriment. I thought it would be interesting if the game had a mechanic similar to that of Dark Souls 2 where a small chunk of your overall health is knocked off every time you die. It’s negligible at first, but after multiple deaths the player will start feeling their missing health points more and more. With this idea, the only way to get these health points back is to feed on someone, pushing players even harder to feed on the NPCs while also requiring more thought about when and who to devour.

I’m only disappointed because everyone else I’ve talked about Vampyr went with a no kill run to shoot for the good ending of the game when the mechanic of eating NPCs is such a great idea. It’s a problem not just with Vampyr, but pretty much every game with obvious good/bad endings. Players are more likely to shoot for a good ending and can miss out on mechanics and stories a game has to offer when pushed towards one goal. I knew of the multiple endings when booting up Vampyr the first time, but I didn’t care about which one I got. To me, the strength of the game and its most interesting aspect is the choice given to players about which NPCs to feed on. I wanted to interact with this mechanic, to see how it was utilized and how far it could be pushed, to see the benefits and drawbacks, and what differences it brought to my experience compared to others. When the West End fell and everyone there perished, I felt horrible, but it was thematically in tune with the game. You should expect a game named Vampyr to make you feel like a monster.

Guacamelee & Multipurpose Attacks

I’ve always been interested in gameplay mechanics that are designed to have multiple uses. Like how the hookshot in the Zelda series can be used to access out of reach areas and as a weapon to stun enemies, the social links in Persona 5 furthering the story and character development of your teammates while giving them special abilities in and outside of battle, and bullets in Metro 2033 working both as ammunition and currency. Multiple ways of affecting gameplay add another layer of complexity to a mechanic, make it more versatile and expressive. One of the best examples I can think of this type of multipurpose mechanic is how special attacks are handled in Guacamelee.

Guacamelee is a Metroidvania with combat ripped out of a 2D brawler. You’ll be exploring a large, spaghetti-like map looking for upgrades and abilities to access new areas, all while beating enemies to pulp with punches, kicks, grapples, and throws, each hit crunching like you stepped on a box of breakfast cereal. A handful of the abilities you acquire, like the Rooster Uppercut and the Dashing Derpderp, are just new harder-hitting attacks that can be used to pummel enemies, streaked with an associated color and moving in the character in a certain direction. At first, these attacks just seem like combo extenders. Since some of your attacks knock your enemies flying through the air like dandelion fluff, it is helpful to have a follow up move that can close the distance and dish out some damage. The combo system is underutilized, however, and the lack of an extra reward for a higher combo makes it pretty forgettable, but it is still satisfying to keep an enemy floating in the air with a string of punches and special attacks. As the game progresses, the armies of skeletons will appear not only cloaked in ponchos and sombreros, but colored shields too. 

These shields need to be broken with the attack of the corresponding color before the enemy can be damaged. The art design really shines in this implementation with the colors vibrant enough to instantly recognize which attack is required to bust open the shield, but this mechanic is still probably the weakest part of the game. The shields are fine when they are first introduced, about a third to halfway through the game. Just as the combat is starting to feel a little samey and lose impact, having an enemy per wave will spawn with a shield encourages target selection and helps the player focus. But it’s near the end of the game, cramped into a small room and many enemies, many with different colored shields, that this becomes annoying. It’s fun to throw your enemies around, watching them fly into each other and knock their comrades down, but a lot of satisfaction is lost if most of them have shields that haven’t been cracked and they are taking no damage from the cascade of limbs.

Combat is not the only aspect of Guacamelee’s gameplay, however, because there is also map exploration, and it’s here that the special attacks really show their worth. While running, jumping, and smacking enemies silly across the world map, the player will often find colored stone blocks impeding their progress. As in a Metroid game, special attacks are needed to break through these blocks and proceed. I typically prefer Metroidvania games where organic movement upgrades are needed to access new areas (like Hollow Knight and how the Castlevania series handle map design), but I find I don’t  mind this type of lock-key-key of design as much in Guacamelee. The game finds the middle ground between these two differing map types through its special attacks. Sure, the blocks are used in dungeons mostly to guide the player to certain areas and later to create shortcuts to checkpoints or to be revisited as the proper upgrade is acquired, but they also help inform the platforming challenges, which are probably my favorite part of the game.

There are many side paths in the world of Guacamelee to explore for extra goodies like health and stamina pieces and chests full of gold. Some are hidden through small gaps in walls but most are just side rooms with platforming challenge to conquer and collect your reward. I always go after as many of these as I can, not only because it’s good practice for when the game starts throwing similar challenges in the critical path, but because they are just very fun. Since each of the special attacks move the character slightly in a direction, they can be used to extend the length of a jump and redirect in midair. This gives the player a precise sense of control and opens up the platforming to a lot of tricky jumps. A common example is getting around walls hanging for the ceiling like stalactites, where you will have to fall past the bottom of the wall and Rooster Uppercut your where up and past it to a platform waiting on the other side. During the later part of the game, these types of platforming challenges become part of the main path. Sometimes you’ll have to cross a long room by going from platform to platform over a lake of acid or maybe it’s a vertical auto-scrolling section where you have to climb to the top of a room while being chased down by buzzsaws. So the special attacks gained throughout the game helps aid the player in both combat and exploring the world map, tying the two types of gameplay together and making them a cohesive whole, and the most interesting outcome of this is how it affects the Guacamelee’s difficulty curve.

Usually in Metroidvania titles, the end game is the easiest part because you’ve gained so many upgrades and new moves. Some moves, like the Screw Attack in the Metroid series and Gas Cloud transformation in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, are pretty overpowered and completely blow out the difficulty curve. Guacamelee doesn’t have this issue since the special attacks are used more for utility than raw power—this leads to the game actually getting more difficult as more upgrades and special attacks are acquired. It’s so rare to find a Metroidvania game that doesn’t get noticeable easier, apart from maybe a few bosses, by the end of the game and the fact that Guacamelee does get harder (with a very steady difficulty curve and some real meaty challenges at the end to boot) makes it a very refreshing take on the genre, gives it an excellent sense of pacing, and helped to keep me engaged while games like Super Metroid would start to lose my interest.

Guacamelee is a very fun game despite all its little annoyances and a lot of that comes from how the game handles its special attacks. In combat, they are satisfying and expressive and can lead the game to feel as stylish as a side-scrolling Devil May Cry or Bayonetta at times. When exploring the world, they are versatile and help form a lot of tricky platforming challenges that are always thrilling to complete. These special attacks and how they help create a meaty difficulty curve is enough of a unique selling point to get a recommendation from me. It’s oddly similar to another game I’ve been playing lately, but more on that next time.

Spelunky 2: Game of the Year – 2020

I didn’t play a lot of games released this year. Partly due to a limited budget of money and time, but mostly it was disinterest in most that came out. No AAA game really caught my attention. I found Final Fantasy 7 Remake demo repetitive and tedious so I never picked up the full release and I refuse to support companies like Naughty Dog and Ubisoft, so that crossed out all their new games. Even the indie games I played this year didn’t excite me too much. Carrion was a fun little bite size romp and Hades was so close to being what I want for a roguelight with social mechanics, but sadly fell short. I felt I didn’t play enough games to make another top five list this year, but I wanted to talk about what is undoubtedly my favorite game of 2020: Spelunky 2.

My history with the series is weird. When I first got my PS4, one of the first games I picked up was the original Spelunky because it’s reputation was so strong. However, I found the difficulty completely impenetrable; I could hardly make it out of the caves. The difficulty in Spelunky 2 isn’t any easier (it may even be harder), but the game just feels better to play. There is less stiffness in the controls and you can toggle run to always be on so you don’t have to constantly hold down the trigger. There is one strange control aspect that returns in Spelunky 2 and that is carrying items.

In both games, carrying items is pretty clunky. To bring anything anywhere it has to be carried and only one thing can be carried at a time. This includes weapons, keys, and the pets, who will give you a health point if delivered to the level exit. This can lead to having to manage multiple items at one on levels that require multiple things to carry around, like the floor in the dwellings where you have to bring the key to the chest to unlock the Udjat eye. If you have a weapon on this floor and also want to carry the pet and the key at the same time, get ready for a juggling act of dropping and picking up items.

This clunkiness with carrying items is very obviously by design though. Since delivering pets to the exit is one of the only ways to get health, only being able to carry an item at a time forces the player to assess what is most important to grab and carry, leading to a sort of flow chart to be run down in the moment. This is because different throwable items have different attributes. Rocks only hit for one point of damage and never break while arrows hit for 2 points of damage, but break and become useless after hitting an tougher enemy like a caveman. So you are constantly going over a checklist in your head. Am I carrying an item that can be thrown as a weapon? If no, grab one. If yes, is there a better weapon or item I should be carrying. It’s these little moments of consideration, these moments of assessment that make Spelunky 2 such an engaging game to play aside from the platforming elements. 

Like most every other roguelike, Spelunky 2 is a game of learning from mistakes and internalizing what needs to be done in the future. Every different biome has different enemies and challenges to consider. Enemies attack patterns and health need to be learned. Interactions between level elements have to be assessed when scouting out a safe path forward. And, the most frustrated of all, traps that can kill you with one hit need to be spotted and avoided.

There is at least one thing in every biome that will kill you instantly no matter how much health you have at the time. Spikes, bear traps, lava, moving blocks; all of these can end your run in a second. While it is definitely frustrating to build up a great run only to have it snuffed out in the blink of an eye, the instant death traps are necessary for the balance of the game. The game would become trivial with the right combination of items and having traps to constantly look out for keeps the game engaging. You have to always be looking ahead for upcoming traps to avoid, enemies to dodge, and treasure to grab that your mind will be racing a mile a minute while playing. Once you have the base gameplay down, then you can start hunting for secrets.

There are so many hidden things to find in Spelunky 2 from secret areas and paths to take throughout the game, items to collect, and new explorers to rescue. And, if you wish to discover the secret 7th world after the “final” boss, there is something that needs to be done on nearly every level and secrets that must be revealed and, quite literally, death to be defied. It’s while going after this secret world that the limited item carrying comes into play as the game’s way of balancing itself. At a few points, items will have to be carried between levels, meaning that if you get a powerful weapon, for example the shotgun, on an early level, you will have to eventually give it up. It’s a great tool for the game to balance itself. If you are just going for a main path ending, you don’t have to worry about giving anything up, but if you want to see the secret worlds and bosses, you have to sacrifice things.

Spelunky 2 is a game of checks and balances, of risk versus reward. Everything good you can get in the game comes with some drawbacks. The shotgun has knockback that can send you flying back off ledges or into spikes. Paste can help you stick bombs to enemies, but will also attach them to walls and ceilings if not aimed properly. The jetpack offers the best mobility in the game, but can easily explode, causing massive damage. With most other roguelikes, it can be very easy to become completely overpowered and become nearly impossible to be killed once you know what you are doing. Spelunky 2 is not like this at all. With the constant threat of instant death by traps and very good items having massive drawbacks, you have a game where full attention is required throughout an entire run. Good play is necessary and mistakes are harshly punished.

This is why I love the game so much. It manages to stay engaging through every different run, perfectly balanced so it is impossible to easily win a run, and it is simply fun. Puzzling out how to get a trapped pet or ghost pot to the end of level without killing or breaking them is fun. Discovering all the secrets and items is fun. The art style itself is just cute, charming, and fun. Many people considered the first Spelunky a perfect game; so much so that there were those wondering how they could improve it for a sequel when it was announced. I cannot speak for the first game due to lack of experience, as stated before, but Spelunky 2 is about as perfectly designed as a game can get in my opinion.

Dying Light & 1st Person Platforming

I’ve never been much into zombies. While they are not something I purposefully avoid, I don’t find myself drawn by media revolving around them. Before playing Dying Light, the last game I played involving zombies was Death Road to Canada. There is an interesting similarity with how both games handle the zombies hordes; that is, as something that should be avoided wherever possible. In Death Road to Canada, a 2D indie roguelike, there’s not much to do but try and kite around the zombie, keeping as much distance between them and you as possible. Dying Light, a full 3D, 1st person open world game, uses a parkour mechanic to let the player jump, climb, and run high above the zombies’ reach. And it is some of the best use of platforming I’ve seen in a 1st person game.

Platforming in 1st person games is nothing new, of course. Doom had “platforming” elements in 1993 by asking players to run across gaps in the floor. Half-Life had the infamous Xen levels, where the player was expected to platform across an alien planet. Mirror’s Edge was a 1st person game built around freerunning and parkour in 2009. Even more modern games like Doom (2016) and Titanfall 2 use double jumps, ledge grabs, and wallrunning to add a sense of platforming to set them apart from other FPSs. But none of these games have the openness and freedom to explore as Dying Light offers.

Set in the fictional city of Harran, the game is split into two large maps: the Slums and Old Town. The Slums are made up of buildings and shacks closely confined together. There is a giant highway overpass above and cutting through the map. Old Town, on the other hand, feels more like a Mediterranean city, filled with narrow streets, taller brick buildings, towers, and chimneys jutting out of slated roofs. Both maps are tightly packed, sometimes even cluttered, and they would have been frustrating to navigate in another 1st person game limited to the ground, but the close proximity of the buildings in Dying Light makes it easy for the player to jump and climb, saying off the zombie infested ground.

The design of the maps focuses on the freerunning. There are routes specifically designed not to break the player’s flow with street lights placed the perfect distance apart to jump to, boards curving around building corners, and ramps to jump from lead you open windows or piles of garbage to staying fall into. This can guide the player along easy paths, but the almost chaotic nature of the maps’ designs also allow free exploration. Every building has a way to climb, be it window grates, awnings, or extruding brick work. Not only does this let the player explore and find their own route through Harran, but if you do mess up and plummet into a group of zombies, it’s just a matter of a quick look around to find a way above them again. The platforming is free-flowing and open for experimentation, which is rare in most AAA games with platforming elements. It’s not as laid out and linear as in the Titanfall 2 nor is it as obvious as in games like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Doom (2016) which use colors to indicate what ledges can and cannot be used to climb.

With AAA games being a hodgepodge of differing gameplay elements and genres, it’s usually hard to describe any big budget game with a single genre. Dying Light itself is an open-world, 1st person action/adventure game. But it is as much of a platformer as any of those other descriptions. The climbing and jumping is integral to the game as one of the main loops, not an extra feature for the back of the box. Going back to Doom (2016) again, while jumping and verticality is important in a fight, most real platforming challenges reward the players with collectibles and secrets. Stripping out the platforming would make the game feel much more linear, but the main gameplay loop of fast paced demon killing would be kept completely intact. Dying Light would be a completely different game without the parkour system and would, at best, be just another zombie game, but with really limb melee combat. 

With parkour being a main focus of the game, its platforming controls have to be very tight, something many 1st person games struggle with, and luckily they are in Dying Light. The jump button is mapped to the shoulder button and it takes some getting used to, but once you learn to continue holding the jump button to grab ledges you’re aiming for, the controls click. There is the perfect amount of stickiness to grabbing ledges. The frames to grab climbable objects are strict enough to feel satisfying, but still lenient enough not to be frustrating. It strikes the perfect balance between being loose enough to be forgiving but tricky enough to be interesting. The game also understands the limits of the 1st person perspective. There is hardly any jumping on small platforms, an annoyance of the early FPS, and when there is, crossing them is a matter of keeping up speed and fluid running more so than jumping from platform to platform. 

Dying Light has a great understanding of what it can and cannot do with its platforming and how to make it fun, which makes it a real shame in the later half of the game when you enter Old Town. Out of the two maps, I prefer Old Town to run across. It’s taller buildings and ziplines make it more entertaining to parkour across. But the missions in this part of the game rely less on finding ways across the map and more on linear indoor or sewer levels. There are still platforming to be done in these areas, but they feel much less open, with there only being one, “correct” way for you to climb. It’s still fun to find that way around these levels, but missing the freedom of movement of the open maps makes these moments feel very restrictive.

I originally had an idea for this post that I would compare the platforming in Titanfall 2 and Doom (2016) to see which one was handled better in the 1st person perspective. But then a friend recommended Dying Light, saying it had the best platforming in a 1st person game they’ve played. After playing it myself, I would have to agree. It emphasizes the platforming more so than the other games and that forced it to be as good as possible, with tight controls and freedom of movement. There is a stigma around 1st person platforming and a belief that it just can’t work, which is sad because it could limit future games from offering new, differing experiences. Dying Light shows how fun platforming can be in a 1st person game if it is paid the right amount of attention during design. I hope we see more games like it in the future. More than just Dying Light 2, that is.