Review – Vampire Survivors
Very few people are going to be able to avoid the phenomenon that is Vampire Survivors. A game that seemingly came out of nowhere, this endless, indie roguelite has captured the hearts and minds of players across the PC base. Enticed by rave reviews from multiple big names, this Early Access darling caught the attention of many with its enticingly low price tag and addictive gameplay. Now, late for Halloween, but early for addiction purposes, the first game from British developer Poncle has officially landed on console, driving rabid fans to pick it up with Game Pass on their Xbox. Naturally, as a game that has generated so much hype and chatter, I had to see what everything was about for myself.
Vampire Survivors is a survival single stick, an unusual approach for a game in today’s complex gaming ecosphere. Taking on the role of one of several heroes, you enter into a sprawling map where enemies generate nonstop in different wave formations, ranging in health and difficulty. Slaying enemies has the chance to drop a blue, green, or red gem that represents a different amount of experience.
Leveling up lets you choose a new weapon (or weapon upgrade) to add to your character, and then the process continues. Deal with denser and denser amounts of enemies, slay the hell out of them, and try to stay alive. Make it to thirty minutes and declare yourself the winner because Death himself will come and turn you into red mist. It’s weird that a game with the word “survivors” in the title considers victory as “getting murdered with no saving throws,” but hey, English is a complex beast.
It’s important to know that I’m not underselling the gameplay of Vampire Survivors from a mechanical point of view: not only is the game single stick, it’s also virtually button-less. Every single weapon that you pick up, from the standard whip to the hilariously weird bombardiering birds, gives you no control over how to attack. The frequency at which attacks come forth from you, plus the number of projectiles you might shoot off (throwing knives, spinning Bibles, some kind of death diamond) can be modified with more weapon upgrades, but the only time you push a button is when choosing something from the weapons list, choosing which character/level you’ll be doing, or purchasing upgrades from the main menu. Otherwise it’s you and the left stick, together against the world.
The level design of Vampire Survivors is brilliant in its simplicity, I have to give it to Poncle for that. Though the maps have different themes and ideas, each ultimately is a very wide, expansive beast, giving you the illusion of control and direction. This is a double edged effect, because it gives you places to run away, but it also gives enemies more directions from which to attack you.
Going from the first level (a mostly barren forest) to the third level (a surprisingly crowded dairy factory), you notice that you have to change up your approach, but only slightly. With the forest, not knowing where to go is fine: just run around wildly and let your Santa Water do the talking with puddles of pain. But the library (second level) means trying to have plenty of close combat weapons, like garlic or the cross, and the dairy factory means balancing long range (lighting bolts) and close range (I recommend fire wands). So, theoretically, there’s a bit of thinking involved.
The thinking is very apparent in how the game builds outward the further in you get. The pixel graphics and jaunty, but repetitive music gives you the impression of something that maybe keeps itself firmly rooted in an almost retro world. After all, our first character, Antiono, looks like a long-lost Belmont cousin, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s tangentially part of the Castlevania universe.
Yet it only takes one playthrough for things to suddenly explode outward, as achievement after achievement comes piling on you, rewarding you for staying alive, for killing enemies, for collecting items to unlock new items to unlock further items. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game, but I’ve found secret characters, secret levels, massively impressive weapon synergies, and found out there’s still more than twenty additional characters that I haven’t gotten to yet, and I WANT TO FIND THEM ALL. There’s a clear plan here to hook players in and keep them coming back for more.
Which…I mean, that’s something to consider in terms of what you’re looking at for a game. Without dissecting or laying blame, Vampire Survivors is one of the most addictive titles I’ve seen in a long while, and that has a lot to do with the actual approach. You literally play with one hand, you just keep moving around, and you get rewarded the longer you play. You pick up so many gems and start to fully strategize about what kind of weapon synergies you need (Soul Eater is my absolute favorite), and you keep your eyes peeled for extra strong enemies that let you get to a treasure chest.
The treasure chests themselves are loot boxes of their own, sometimes giving you one, three, or even five weapon upgrades, which can be such a game changer. The explosive fireworks, flashing lights, and exciting music tell you that you’ve hit the jackpot, and you feel that way as such. My daughter and I both did a fist-pump when a treasure chest gave me three pieces of garlic, effectively turning me into a stinky wrecking ball.
When you put down the controller, though, you just kind of think: “What did I just do?” The games don’t always take so long – usually fifteen to twenty minutes, less at the beginning – but you very rarely do a single run and then walk away. Instead, you quickly dump your coins into more upgrades (or Curses, if you’re a masochist and like to up the difficulty) and then jump right back into Gallo Tower trying to figure out better ways to get to the world you want to live in.
You’ve heard that you can unlock a dog as a playable character, and you want that dog. You’re trying not to check the wiki because that’ll spoil things, but you also want to know if there’s a better way to min/max a build in order to survive longer. Hell, maybe you just want to go grab more floor chicken, because there’s such a dry level of humor in this game that you just laugh at the small things. Why the hell is there a weapon called NO FUTURE? I mean, that’s so goddamn grim, I adore it and I want it.
I’m sincerely glad Vampire Survivors doesn’t exist for the Nintendo Switch and that I don’t have a Steam Deck, because it has all the hallmarks of a game to drag you in, kicking and screaming, until you get to completion and unlock everything. It’s visually pleasing, with a beautiful color spread of pixel art. It has some real planning for buildout, combined with random chances at what you might find, and the devs have been absolute beasts. The fact that this started as a solo endeavor, was crafted with love and player feedback, and now is launching in such a magnificent lens means that this is far from the final build that we’ll see.
I imagine that Vampire Survivors is going to spawn a legion of imitators and developers trying to capture the same effect but with some variation, and I’ll be staying far, far away from them. This game is amazing, and it’s one of those titles where I don’t know or care about the lore: I just want to get those blue gems and feel the chemical reward of doing something that my brain says is good. Pick it up and play, but be sure to block off an afternoon. Any other plans you have are going to get canceled.
The pixel artwork is perfect for the sheer number of sprites and items on the screen, though it does get a bit murky when everything is piling on you all at once.
Stupidly simple approach, the core mechanics are understood in the first second, whereas figuring out synergies and character builds make for complex, long-term analysis of the overall game.
Soundtrack is great, feels like a full fledged Nintendo score complete with bleeps and bloops. Not something I’d listen to outside of the game, but it captures the spirit perfectly.
Fun Factor: 10
When I try to keep playing while I’m typing the review, I know I’ve hit upon something special.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Vampire Survivors is available now on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
Reviewed on Xbox One S.
A copy of Vampire Survivors was provided by the publisher.