Claiming that gameplay will always be more important than graphics isn’t a particularly bold statement. Many will agree that this has been the case for video games ever since their conception back in the late ‘70s. Pong wasn’t much to look at, but it sold the concept of gaming to the masses. Tetris, meanwhile, sold countless Game Boys. Here we are in 2022, and the marriage of simplicity and addictive gameplay is more important than ever. We’re a generation that demands instant gratification, and Vampire Survivors is here to deliver it.
Even by low-budget indie game standards, Vampire Survivors is visually crude. It isn’t without merit – the sprites are well drawn, and the game engine can effortlessly handle hundreds of enemies on screen at once – but the backdrops and UI both have a placeholder look to them. I even thought the main menu screen was a tongue-in-cheek take on shovelware before realising that this is just a solo developer doing their best. There is still some appeal in how crude the menus look, however, with the title screen resembling Castlevania fan art circa 2001.
The graphics may be basic, but the fundamentals are remarkably refined, with the developer’s attention seemingly placed on the areas that matter the most.
Three paragraphs in, and we haven’t even touched upon what Vampire Survivors is. It’s billed as a casual rogue-lite, which is true, but it plays not unlike a twin-stick shooter…only minus the twin-stick part. A single-stick shooter, if you will. Once you’re done navigating the menus – which includes purchasing permanent upgrades and choosing a character from a constantly increasing pool – just the left analogue stick and a single button are used. And even then, that button is only for confirming upgrades.
Your Castlevania-esque hero attacks automatically, unleashing a melee barrage, emitting projectiles, and casting spells every few seconds. This leaves you free to navigate the world while looking for relics and coffins, all while avoiding and circling around swarms of fantasy creatures that flock to your location. The closest thing I can compare this to are the ‘pacifism’ achievements within the Geometry Wars series. You’re constantly trying to find the safest path through the swarms while trying to survive for either 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the level, before confronting a Grim Reaper.
Defeated enemies drop XP tokens, and you’ll need to circle around to collect these too. They litter the battlefield, and as such, you’re almost constantly accumulating XP and consequently levelling up quickly. Every new rank allows you to choose one of three (or sometimes four – if you’re lucky) perks or upgrades, calling for shrewd decision-making.
Attacks are remarkably different – some are homing, others have short cooldowns, and a few only fire in the direction you’re facing. It’s your job to balance these and upgrade them accordingly to be able to withstand the onslaught of enemies that soon emerges. Once an attack reaches around level 8-10 it will be considerably powerful, yet it still may leave you vulnerable in some way. You need to be alert to these armour chinks and invest in defence too, which – amusingly – includes stinky repelling garlic.
The result is a game heavily centered around experimentation, letting you become ridiculously overpowered quickly…before ultimately revealing a flaw in your plans. Never is it punishing, however. In fact, it rewards you for trying new things. This is mostly evident in its achievements. A whopping 140 feature in total, so chances are when a run is over, you’ll garner a couple of virtual pats on the back for reaching a new milestone or trying out a new character. Every couple of runs should be enough to unlock a permanent upgrade too – the usual assortment of health, speed, XP, and armour boosts – and the impact of these is usually noticeable.
The difficulty level is fair, and this is despite 100s of enemies eventually clouding the screen. Health drops aren’t too uncommon, and you can later unlock a revival.
There’s a lot to get stuck into – a wide range of characters, each with their own attacks and perks – plus a handful of different stages with their own foes and hazards. The library stage is considerably narrow; a place for certain characters to shine, but tricky when it comes to outrunning the swarms. The dairy stage, meanwhile, showcases the game’s sillier side – complete with minecarts that can be sent hurtling into crowds. It knows how to keep you playing too, regularly dropping a serotonin-boosting treasure chest – complete with a wonderfully gaudy opening sequence – and unique boss confrontations.
Vampire Survivors is a game easy to admire, simply because the core basics are so remarkably balanced and refined. The way swarms gradually increase in number and intensity, and the main characters’ speed and motion, are two elements that work harmoniously. Then on top of that, there’s the sense of progression and the rewards for experimentation, which will doubtlessly draw you back in for more.
This is one of the most addictive games of recent times and a strong contender for being the best game available at a £5 price point, especially when it comes to replay value – this isn’t something done and dusted a few hours, but rather designed for the long haul, revealing new depths the more you play. Well done to the scouts at Microsoft for spotting this one and signing it up for Game Pass.
Poncle’s Vampire Survivors is out now on Xbox One and Xbox Series. Also available on PC.