I wasn’t expecting Vampire Rain to be such a precise distillation of my 2020 experience. Its being a much derided Xbox 360 game (later tweaked and ported to PlayStation 3 with the subtitle Altered Species), many don’t even remember the early seventh-gen stealth-horror title. It’s really not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. The storytelling is atrocious, as Unskippable demonstrated clearly back in the day, but once you get that it’s a game primarily about sneaking around enemies rather than going takedown-crazy like in a modern Ubisoft game, it works.
That’s what I had planned to talk about. I had a punny headline, “Does Vampire Rain Really Suck?” in mind. Then it hit me, as I was working my way through the game’s third act.
It’s quiet. I’m alone, left to my own devices in my office at — what is it, nearly 6 a.m.? Easily for the third time in a row, at least. We’re all dealing with current circumstances amid the COVID-19 crisis in our own way, and apparently part of my unconscious mind’s response is persistent insomnia. Sleep isn’t comforting. Hell, it’s a fight to wrest some relief from whatever time remains before I need to wake up and be a functioning adult. Yet even in those late hours before I succumb, I never find peace. Anxiety rattles in my brain, drowning in that isolation. The only thing I have to do to pass that time is work.
Vampire Rain’s hero Lloyd and his team are just as trapped in a seemingly never-ending night. They have next to no one they can reach out to, often splitting up on their own to cover more ground as they’re left without support. Their supplies are constantly limited, barely getting by with a handful of ammo and some charges that make their UV knives effective against the enemy. Everyone their team relied on is either failing them or asking more of them, time and again. All while stuck in hostile territory.
My neighbors glare at my family and me every time we wash our mail with our masks and gloves on. They’ll all regularly talk to one another without a mask or any sort of distancing, having barbecues and chatting away on the street while we stay inside. One of the only other households taking it seriously had someone rob their car in the middle of the night. I hear things creeping around outside at night, and I never know if it’s just an animal, the wind, or if it’s something worse lurking out there.
One of the biggest complaints about Vampire Rain is how “hard” it is. How omnipotent even the weakest enemy is and how sparse the checkpoints are. Yet it’s been oddly relaxing. In the end, what damned Vampire Rain is that it just fails to express that evading your enemies is always best. Which is to say, the game effectively punches you in the face until you learn that combat is ill-advised. Your pistol is useless for anything besides scaring birds to distract the enemy and breaking open crates at a distance. The most powerful weapons like the shotgun and sniper rifle are given out sparingly, and often with just enough ammo to barely survive.
Yet, you have two vision modes, the ability to mark and track enemies, and a map that highlights every doorway and catwalk available to you. Not to mention an amazing ability to climb all over the place. The point of Vampire Rain is not to be a soldier, but instead an urban explorer like Faith from Mirror’s Edge, with far higher stakes if caught.
That’s the nice thing about Vampire Rain. It does ask a lot of you, at times either a glitch or an odd design decision leaving you scratching your head for a moment, but at least it makes sense overall. You can find a logic and reason to its odd blend of Splinter Cell, Resident Evil, and parkour exploration. The problem is that Vampire Rain just punishes you with an over-the-top death animation whenever you don’t do what you’re supposed to, often sending you back several crucial minutes to do it all over again. If you aren’t the patient type, it can be infuriating, but at least you can try again.
I’m scared shitless for my friends and family. I keep trying to ensure that we’re all safe and sound, but something new breaks, or there’s some new exposure vector identified that we have to account for. The local hospitals are already overwhelmed again. I’m watching some of the strongest people I know, across the world, breaking in ways none of us could’ve imagined possible. There’s no rhythm to life anymore — it’s just a constant din. You can do everything in your power to do the right thing and still be met with inexplicable failure.
In Vampire Rain, I know precisely why I fail, and I can solve the problem. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being observant, like a squeaking rat revealing a vent to slip past some enemies. Other times, you have to get creative. At this one sniping section, you’re supposed to just slide across a zipline to the next zone, but if you do, it alerts a nightwalker that, as far as I can tell, you’ll never see coming. However, Vampire Rain has large (for the time) sandbox environments, so I just took a glance over the railing and hopped down off of my vantage point. I landed without skipping a beat, got a better angle than if I had followed the level design’s nudges, and made every shot count.
Some have asked whether we should be indulging in, let alone working on, entertainment right now. I even grappled with some self-doubts about my own work, but I don’t think I’d be processing things half as well without it. Art helps make sense of our world — even questionable, deeply flawed art like Vampire Rain. It’s not a great game by any measure, but it put into context feelings I haven’t been able to get out half as concisely, and for that I’m grateful. I think that’s something we’ll all need, going forward.