Even when bigger, more flashy options beg for my attention, the simplest, silliest games sometimes grab me by the throat and won’t let go, revealing layers upon layers of challenges, secrets, and even more absurdity. That’s what happened with Vampire Survivors, which, despite looking like hundreds of other tiny pixel art games that come and go on Steam every day, captivated me and a lot of other people when it came out in early access nearly a year ago and has kept me coming back ever since. Uniquely, it is essentially a twin-stick shooter that eliminates one of the sticks and all other buttons. This means that you only need to worry about where to stand while it handles firing your ever-increasing arsenal at the thousands of increasingly spongy enemies that fill the screen. It’s a clever idea that has kept me entertained for a lot longer than I thought it would. Even when it gets repetitive and boring, I can feel its pull to switch to another challenge mode to see how long I can keep going.
There is no hiding it: It certainly doesn’t look like much in Vampire Survivors. The scarcely energized pixelated 2D person sprites appear to be removed from a nonexclusive and long-neglected dream game from the mid-’90s, with the most fascinating part being that some of them really do have a pleasant crumbling impact as they bite the dust. It is as straightforward as it can be while remaining as readable as it needs to be, allowing you to mostly understand what is happening amid the imminent chaos. It cannot be overemphasized: If you stay alive for long enough, there will be so many enemies and psychedelic weapon effects on your screen that it will be nearly impossible to understand what’s going on. But the thrill is living on that border.
Keeping 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 that introduces greater threats every minute, is a constant and desperate struggle. If you can make it to the end of a typical 30-minute run, which goes to extremes that are too absurd to describe here, you should be able to. If you don’t kill enemies quickly enough, you’ll be overwhelmed and killed. However, if you kill enemies quickly and collect the XP gems they drop, you can level up and choose from three or four new passive abilities and weapons until you’ve used up all the slots. The more you open, the more it turns into a round of picking the most ideal choices from the hand you’re managing; You must choose carefully to optimize your build because almost every weapon has a passive ability that it pairs with, allowing it to “evolve” into a more powerful version (the basic Magic Wand, for example, pairs with the rate-of-fire increasing Empty Tome to eliminate cooldown). It doesn’t have as many surprises as the combos in The Binding of Isaac, but there is still a lot to try.
Getting far enough ahead of the curve so that your flailing auto attacks can eliminate everything in a single hit is what gives Vampire Survivors its thrilling excitement. However, you still have a long way to go before you get there. The Mad Forest map, which could hardly be more basic, will host your initial brief runs. It’s a vast expanse of green grass with only a few scattered trees and occasional cul-de-sacs that would only be entered by insane people. Similar to nearly all of the maps, if you move in one direction, it will cycle indefinitely, much like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that uses the same background over and over again. You’ll soon be able to unlock additional maps by completing milestones that at first seem impossible but gradually become achievable. These maps also get a little bit more interesting when some new obstacles are added. The Decorated Library, for example, is a ceaseless passage where you can move right or left perpetually however not up or down, while the Gallo Pinnacle allows you to go up or down everlastingly yet not left or right. Similar to an industrialized Mad Forest, the Dairy Plant has more things to bump into if you’re not paying attention. A boss rush map with only a small arena can be unlocked at some point. You can get the gist: They aren’t very complicated, and the most important differences in gameplay are bonuses to enemy strength or other modifiers.
When you’re trying to remember where you left a treasure chest that dropped when you weren’t looking or a health pickup or screen-clearing cross you didn’t need at the time, it can be hard to accept that most of these do go on forever. Fortunately, you have access to a map that you can pause and pull up at any time to determine the best course of action for snatching them up.
Foes are likewise very essential in their ways of behaving: The only thing that sets them apart is how quickly they move, how much damage they deal if they catch you, and how much damage they absorb before dying, whether they are the bats you see at the beginning of a run or the mummies, witches, werewolves, and dozens of other types of monsters that arrive later. They are, in essence, heat-seeking missiles with hitpoints. Nearly none of them fire at you, which is good because there are already so many on the screen at once that it would probably become overwhelming quickly. Even the “bosses,” like the egg-dropping wraiths that chase you after you collect some special items, are almost all just bigger versions of regular enemies with huge hitpoint pools; none of them have any special abilities.
That last 1%, however, is very welcome when it appears. Sometimes you’ll be surrounded by extremely durable plants that slowly close in on you, giant bone dragons that stretch the length of the screen, and occasionally exploding enemies will charge you. You’ll also occasionally see swarms of fast-moving bats or ghosts that cut across the screen (they die quickly, but if the map is crowded, they can push stronger bad guys into you). If you don’t kill the blue reaper that summons them, some stages will even gradually fill with water, making them especially challenging to hit without the right weapons. Because it can quickly become tiresome to repeatedly stomp on the same enemies for the majority of each run, Vampire Survivors could use a lot more of these enemies with unique behaviors.
At the point when you initially begin, Vampire Survivors is incredibly intense. In my early runs, I rarely made it past the 10-minute mark, and it took a lot of tries before I got to being killed by Death himself at the 30-minute mark, which is where the majority of runs end by design. However, as you progress through the game, you begin to gain access to a plethora of passive abilities and weapons, ranging from basic knives that fire in your direction to garlic that emits a corrosive aura around you to lightning that strikes random enemies to a pair of birds that circle you in opposite directions and fire artillery in a rotating area—as birds are known to do. A lot of replayability and enjoyment comes from putting together builds of abilities that work well together. Seeing my character take so much damage is a satisfying reward for staying alive long enough to get to the point where I could literally walk away from the controls and still complete the game.
It becomes very similar to Pac-Man’s experience of being high on power pellets and chomping on ghosts, but without the annoying walls, the ghosts here don’t have the good sense to flee in terror. That can drag on for too long, rendering the entire experience pointless as you tap your foot in anticipation of the conclusion. On the other hand, if you fall behind, it becomes a bullet hell-style game of dodging and weaving while frantically waiting for a screen-clearing power-up to appear to give you even a brief respite; even then, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to catch up before your health runs out. Killing bosses gives you a big chance to grow in power because it gives you a treasure chest with one, three, or even five random upgrades for abilities you already have. Additionally, this is the only chance to obtain evolved versions of your weapons.)
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 kill because the levels go on forever. However, doing so would prevent you from farming the pickups that give you cash (the currency for persistent progression) and other useful drops like health, flamethrowers, and magnets that draw in every XP gem you didn’t collect on the map. That gives pickups a reason to move, but I quickly realized that moving in a large circle gave pickups the time they needed to spawn and allowed me to return to pick up anything I missed or had saved for later. The fact that most maps have passive upgrades stashed far from your starting point that, if you wait until your existing slots are full before picking them up, can make you even more powerful is the only thing that can break you out of this.
As you go you’ll unavoidably open essentially a major lump of the many characters (perhaps a few mystery ones) who each gives you different beginning weapons and slight rewards to details. Arca Ladonna, who begins with a randomly firing fireball attack and sees her weapon cooldown times decrease as she levels up, and Donmario, my favorite, who begins with Bibles orbiting him and receives bonuses to projectile duration and speed (you can always get the Wings to upgrade to make up for the lack of speed). He can transform into almost a buzz saw when properly upgraded, easily slicing through crowds of enemies. You can pick up almost all of the characters’ starting bonuses during a round, and these bonuses can stack to create insanely powerful builds. This is a game in which breaking its balance is a challenge and seems to be celebrated.
The longevity of Vampire Survivors is due to this: I’m still tempted to pursue its numerous achievements, even when I completely break it with a build that I literally have to quit out of when playing in the unlockable unlimited mode because nothing can ever kill me. With the character of Y, reach level X; on the N map, get to minute 31. It always gives you a hand to tie behind your back or a handicap you can give yourself to make it seem even harder to overcome. Then there are the many, many secrets that you could work on for a thousand hours and never discover without consulting a guide. Even then, you have to try to make the most of them. Every time I think I’ll reach the pinnacle, it has done an excellent job of setting a higher and higher standard.
Vampire Survivors appears to have no business retaining my attention in the manner that it has, given its incredibly straightforward graphics and basic map and enemy design. Despite this, I felt compelled to spend more than a hundred hours experimenting with its numerous weapon and ability upgrade combinations, beginning each round to complete the game and gain access to every character, weapon, and secret. The duller periods in between unlocking a challenging new mode or finding a great build can break the game’s spell, but you’ll probably soon find a new way to push yourself to survive for a few seconds longer.