It’s not often a game comes along and launches a new genre. Vampire Survivors initially released in Early Access last December, and while it fully admits to being heavily inspired by the Android-only title Magic Survival, a combination of good luck and cheap pricing made it the face of a new type of arcade game. The plot is nonexistent, the scenario more a gothic visual theme than a coherent world, and initially the character and enemy designs were just a touch too close to Castlevania for comfort but the feeling of wielding overwhelming and ever-growing power against even more overwhelming odds gave Vampire Survivors a large enough fan-base to grow into the titan it’s become.
There are enough games of this type out there that the setup should be familiar by now. The player starts at level one armed with a basic weapon as popcorn enemies start advancing from every side of a wide-open field. It’s basically a twin-stick shooter except for the lack of twin-sticks, and for that matter, any level of active shooting. “Bullets,” which can be anything from daggers to axes to a minecart, fire off automatically depending on the weapon type, and the player’s one job is to move in a way that takes full advantage of the firing pattern. The whip shoots left or right every couple of seconds, depending on which way the player is facing, while axes launch up and fall down (and ignore that it’s a top-down view so the axes are actually flying north and then arcing south. There’s too many monsters to kill for mere logic to dictate weapon physics). Every weapon is different, no overlap in the firing patterns aside from a couple of themed pairs, and there are a couple dozen to choose from.
Every enemy killed has the chance to drop an experience gem, and grabbing enough earns a level-up and the option to choose one of three new weapons or abilities. Choosing a weapon you already have makes it more powerful, while taking a new one opens up a whole new set of options for more efficient enemy destruction. Of course it might also be nice to have a rate of fire increase or see a boost to the amount of experience a gem pickup gives, so there’s choices to be made. No rush, the game politely waits on pause while you weigh your options. You can only choose twelve different items per run, most of which have a maximum power level of eight, so it pays to be selective.
Once the choice is made it’s back to the killing field to do it again, and again and again and again until you’ve got a huge arsenal spreading firepower everywhere and would be death incarnate if the enemies weren’t powering up over time as well. There’s an ebb and flow to the fight where one moment nothing can touch you, and then the battlefield slowly gets more and more crowded as you scramble to hold on until the next power surge. It helps that most enemies have only the one attack pattern, which is to walk slowly towards you in the hope of knocking off HP before they’re killed, but that only sounds simple until there are what feel like hundreds crowding the screen.
Helping with the fight are destructible props, usually candelabras, that drop the occasional temporary powerup. The most common drop is gold, though, usually a single coin but sometimes in various sized bags. Gold isn’t spent in the level until a shopkeeper is available much later in the game, but rather is used between one run and the next to buy permanent incremental upgrades to the player abilities. Weapon power, armor, movement and weapon speed, health and health regeneration, and many more are available, and they stack with the upgrades found during a run. Gold is also used to by new characters and the large cast of heroes all come with their own individual weapons and stat bonuses.
While all this helps build towards a wonderfully playable game that could stand with the best of arcade gaming’s history, what makes Vampire Survivors sing is its nearly endless supply of secrets. Some of them are meant to be discovered relatively easily, such as weapon evolutions. Certain weapons and items synch up with each other, and when their levels are maxed out they evolve into something even more powerful than they had been before once you find the treasure chest pickup. Garlic, for example, creates a circle of protection around the player that constantly pings away the health of any enemy that wanders inside, but if you’re also holding the pummarola, which restores a few HP per second, the garlic’s circle can evolve into a pulsing black aura that converts damage into player health. If you’re holding an item and its evolution-enabling counterpart appears as a level-up option there will be an indicator showing this, and the grimoire that’s accessible from the pause menu has a list of all the combinations that have been discovered.
Other secrets take a bit of digging, such as new characters found by following hints on the level map or weapons that won’t be added to the level-up options until they’re not only found but maxed out. Secret characters, special events, levels with hidden bonuses, arcana cards that add yet another layer of power-up options and much more are all buried in the game, and once you get a sense of how things unlock, they come at a pace that feels like there’s always something worth earning just about to drop.
Vampire Survivors initially feels like a nice bite-sized adventure, something to dip into now and then for the joy of orchestrating a little mayhem as the heart of bullet hell rather than its recipient. For the first few rounds, which generally last maybe ten minutes or so, it may not even feel like much more than a fun little time waster, and then the reward path opens up. A little extra power, a new level, new characters and the satisfying feeling of growth leading to true battlefield mayhem lead deeper into the game, with each new discovery layering onto the previous ones in a way that makes it almost impossible to resist the call of starting another run. Even when playing for the fun of it rather than chasing after a goal there are so many characters and upgrade options that each game is different than the last, running a constant balance between working a favorite build, finding something new,and making the best of the level-up items when they’re not what you would have hoped. Vampire Survivors is a long slow burn that never stops getting hotter, maybe not quite the first of the genre it ignited, but certainly the best.