Part of me wishes Vampire Survivors had come out 15 years ago when I was secretly playing games in school computer labs. It’s got this ineffable Flash game charm to it and a younger me would’ve played this thing to death instead of actually doing schoolwork, undoubtedly smiling the entire time. But frankly, Vampire Survivors kicks so much ass that I’m still going to play the hell out of it. It’s a timed, horror-themed survival game playable exclusively with the WASD keys, but that basic idea creates so many tense and satisfying moments that I can’t put it down.
Wake up survivor, we have ghouls to burn
Imagine a lawnmower sim made by Alucard from Castlevania. That’s Vampire Survivors. You play as one of several unlockable survivors, each with their own starting gear and passive bonuses, on a quest to survive the night. More and stronger monsters flood the screen as time goes on so you’ve got to acquire and upgrade items and weapons to make sure you can keep up with the ever-growing horde. You start by flicking a whip at bats but within 10 minutes you’ll have turned into a living blender of destruction, a dervish of death sending fire bolts, axes, daggers, boomerangs, and plenty more bouncing around the screen in a pulpy frenzy of ghosts, zombies, and giant bugs.
Vampire Survivors is a shining example of snacky, streamlined game design, and it does so much with so little. Technically speaking, all you do in this game is walk around, either out of the path of approaching monsters or over to some loot in the distance. Your weapons fire automatically, meaning all you have to do is dodge the thousands upon thousands of monsters coming at you, which is a lot more intense than it sounds. For example, some weapons target random or nearby enemies but others can be loosely aimed, and this makes you think more carefully about how to move around. As you learn the rhythm of your weapons, you start to subconsciously line up attacks – when you have some breathing room, that is. Sometimes staying alive is all you can manage.
Solo developer Poncle has somehow made an entire game out of the tried-and-true strategy of kiting enemies around, and it works incredibly well. Your eyes start to recognize the encroaching undead as a maze to be navigated. You’re constantly looking for your next escape route because near-instant death is always just pixels away. And threading the needle between a cloud of bats and a group of zombies to nab just one more gemstone, a piece of chicken, or a treasure chest is surprisingly heart-pounding stuff. Survival is a balance of greed and spacing fueled by the risk of throwing a stellar run and starting all over (couldn’t be me).
Night after night after night
I’ll try just about anything that puts a zillion numbers on the screen, but lizard brain adrenaline can only last me so long. I’m hooked on Vampire Survivors because it throws so many curveballs that prevent things from getting stale. Every five minutes, you’re encircled by killer plants that force you to kite dudes around a much smaller area. Upgrades are so impactful that I’m always hungry for XP gems. Random chest and item drops are alluring oases in a desert of undead, and the animation and jingle that plays when you open some treasure never fails to lighten my mood.
The moment-to-moment tension is backed by an engrossing upgrade system that makes every run feel meaningful. You can unlock new characters and boost stats like armor, health, damage, movement speed, and many more using the gold you collect. (Pro-tip: upgrade your armor first.) Completing various challenges and achievements will also unlock new items for future runs, so you’re always getting stronger in some way. Plus you can reset your upgrades and try new combinations whenever you want, which is a huge weight off my perfectionist mind.
There’s a rogue-lite air to all this which I love, and more than anything, this stuff takes me right back to school days spent on sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate watching numbers go up in games like Insaniquarium and Learn To Fly. This shit is therapeutic for me. It tickles what is probably the least practical part of my brain – the same bit in charge of Genshin Impact crit values, Destiny 2 loadouts, and Monster Hunter math – and I love it.
The best way I can praise Vampire Survivors is to describe the environment in which I tried it, and subsequently dumped several hours into it. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there are a lot of games coming out this month. Personally, I’ve got to prepare for Destiny 2: The Witch Queen, Genshin Impact just got a new update starring my most-anticipated character, and to top it off, a new volume of my current favorite book series dropped literally hours before I bought this game. Vampire Survivors is so good and so immediately compelling that it cut through all of that and sat my media-overloaded ass down for a few hours of good old-fashioned vampire smashin’.
I don’t know if I can offer a stronger recommendation. Vampire Survivors is one of the most elegantly designed games I’ve played this year and it’s $3 on Steam. Try it.