Sometimes the simplest, silliest games sink their hooks into me don’t let go even while bigger, flashier options cry out for my attention. That was what happened with Vampire Survivors, a weird little early access game that started blowing up on the Steam charts despite looking very much like the hundreds of other tiny pixel-art games that come and go every day. What’s novel about it is very simple: it’s basically a twin-stick shooter that does away with the right stick, leaving you to worry exclusively about positioning yourself while it takes care of firing your ever-escalating collection of weapons at the thousands of increasingly spongy enemies that flood the screen. It’s a clever idea that works for a lot longer than I expected before its challenge petered out, and one that feels like it has a lot of room to grow.
There’s no sugarcoating it: Vampire Survivors sure doesn’t look like much. The pixelated 2D character sprites seem torn out of a generic and long-forgotten fantasy game from the early ’90s and are barely animated, with the most interesting part being that some of them do have a nice disintegration effect as they die. It’s as simple as it can possibly be while managing to stay as readable as it needs to be so that you can mostly tell what’s going on during the utter chaos that’s about to ensue.
The three currently available maps are even more rudimentary: the first is a forest with nothing but a few small clumps of trees and an occasional cul de sac that only a crazy person would ever trap themselves inside of, the second is a library with walls on the top and bottom, and the third is literally just a wide-open grassy field that goes on forever. And I do mean forever: on all three maps you can travel in a single direction for an entire 30-minute run and never hit a wall, which is odd to wrap your head around and can get annoying when you’re trying to keep track of where you left a health pickup you didn’t need at the time.
Enemies are also basic in their behaviors: whether they’re the bats you see at the beginning of a run or the mummies, witches, werewolves, and dozens of other monster types that arrive later, about 99% of them just move toward you until they die. In fact, the only distinguishing factors other than how they look is their speed and how much damage they absorb before evaporating. They’re effectively just heat-seeking projectiles with hitpoints, and most are little more than fodder. (None of them shoot at you, which is good because there are so many it would probably become overwhelming quickly.) Even the “bosses” are almost all straight-up enlarged versions of normal enemies with bigger pools of hitpoints – there’s not a special ability among them.
That last 1%, though, is more than welcome when it shows up. You’ll see occasional swarms of fast-moving bats or ghosts that cut across the screen (they die quick, but if the screen is crowded they can push sturdier bad guys into you), sometimes you’ll be encircled by extremely durable plants that slowly close in on you, and once in a while exploding enemies will charge you. Vampire Survivors could use a lot more of these enemies with distinctive behaviors, because for most of each run it can become pretty monotonous to stomp all over more of the same.
When you first start out, Vampire Survivors is extremely tough. I rarely made it past the 10-minute mark in my early runs, and it took quite a few attempts before I made it all the way to being killed by Death himself at the 30-minute mark. Bit as you go you quickly unlock a healthy collection of fun abilities, from simple knives that shoot out like bullets in the direction you’re facing to garlic that projects a damaging aura around you to lightning that strikes random enemies, or even birds that circle you and launch bombardments in a rotating zone (as birds are known to do). Putting together builds of abilities that compliment each other is where a lot of the replayability and enjoyment comes from, and seeing so much damage pour out of my character is a satisfying reward for staying alive long enough to get there.
The constant struggle is to keep your character’s damage output one step ahead of the rising tide of the enemy flood, which increases in intensity based on the ticking clock. You can only do that by maintaining a rapid pace of killing enemies and gathering the XP gems they drop, which then lets you level up and pick from a random selection of three or four new weapons and passive abilities. The enthralling joy of Vampire Survivors comes from getting far enough ahead of the curve that your flailing auto-attacks kill everything in one hit (or at least before they can hit you), turning bad guys from threats to tasty treats that you run straight into. It’s very much like the sensation of being Pac-Man high on power pellets as he’s chomping on ghosts, but without any of those pesky walls and the ghosts don’t have the good sense to flee in terror. If you fall behind, on the other hand, Vampire Survivors turns into a bullet hell-style game of dodging and weaving, desperately hoping for a screen-clearing power-up to drop and even the odds before your health is drained away (which can happen extremely quickly if you’re not careful).
Vampire Survivors Screens
A big opportunity to leap forward in power comes from killing bosses, which rewards you with a treasure chest that can contain one, three, or even five random upgrades for abilities you’ve already acquired. This is also the only opportunity to unlock “evolved” versions of your weapons, which only become available if you’ve chosen a companion ability (for example, the Magic Wand can be upgraded to fire continuously if you have the Empty Tome), and learning those combos becomes essential to maximizing your firepower. The way your abilities combine isn’t as full of delightful surprises as the combos in something like The Binding of Isaac, but there’s plenty to experiment with.
The natural urge is to enter a holding pattern where you stay in one area and collect all of the XP from every enemy you’ve killed, but if you do that you won’t be farming the pickups that spawn just off your screen. Those award you cash (the persistent progression currency) and handy stuff like health, flamethrowers, smart bombs, and magnets that draw in every XP gem you left uncollected on the map. That creates some incentive to move, and I soon realized that moving in a wide circle gave pickups the time they needed to spawn while also letting me come back to pick up anything I’d missed or saved for later.
The 11 different playable characters that unlock offer at least some additional replayabilty, giving you different starting weapons and slight bonuses to stats. Just to name a few, there’s Arca Ladonna, who starts with a randomly firing fireball attack and whose weapon cooldown times reduce as she levels up, or my favorite, Donmario, an elderly priest who moves slowly but starts with Bibles orbiting him and gets major bonuses to projectile duration and speed. Properly upgraded, he can turn into an almost literal buzz saw that cuts through crowds of enemies with ease. Nearly all of the characters’ starting bonuses are things you can pick up during a round, but if you stack them together it can create some crazy-powerful builds.
What eventually drains Vampire Survivors of its challenge is the persistent progression unlocks you can buy, which let you boost passive abilities from damage output to movement speed to giving every weapon an extra projectile. Sure, the more noticeable ones are neat to unlock and then see in action on your next run, but there aren’t enough ways to scale up the challenge to compensate for your increased power. Even the third map, which gives enemies +50% to their health, has become easy enough for me to consistently blow through to the end unless I’m deliberately handicapping myself with my ability choices, which takes a bit of the thrill out of it.
Even so, I’ve gotten over a dozen hours out of it by chasing down all of the achievements, and there’s already an opt-in public beta where new features are trickling out. I’m more or less done with Vampire Survivors for now, but I’m thinking I’ll be back to check out what’s changed in a few months.