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Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor is already mere pickaxe strokes from striking autoshooter gold

It needs more time in the forge, but the makings of a rock-solid Vampire Survivors-like are here

A dwarf perishes to the Glyphid horde in Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor.
Image credit: Ghost Ship Publishing / Rock Paper Shotgun

I’m sure that describing Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor as a mix of Deep Rock Galactic and Vampire Survivors sounds like it’s betraying a terminal lack of imagination. But, come on, look at it. It’s a top-down autoshooter/bullet heaven where defeated beasties drop XP blobs that fuel an escalating series of weapon and stat upgrades, playing out in the whimsical sci-fi/fantasy/corporate nightmare universe inhabited by DRG’s dwarves. "It’s a mix of Deep Rock Galactic and Vampire Survivors" is the most apt and succinct description that currently or will ever exist for it. So there.

And yet, being derivative doesn’t always preclude the opportunity for bloody good fun. I’ve played just over three hours of a very early Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor build, and while it’s both missing some parts and could benefit from the odd tweak, it’s already capable of pumping out dopamine as efficiently as any established VampSurvs-alike.

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It helps that Survivor has just as much in common with its namesake FPS as it does Poncle’s genre-definer. Not that it has Deep Rock Galactic’s co-op, or as it stands, more than one of its playable characters. But beyond the surface-level borrowing of DRG’s gloomy underground setting, its boxy riffles, and its chunky insectoid foes, Survivor is imbued throughout with the pleasures and challenges of its space-age mining fantasy.

On a purely mechanical level, this means that each cave is less of an open, level plane and more of a rock wall maze, with limited manoeuvrability compounding the relative lack of visibility. But then you’re still a dwarf, and you still have a pickaxe, and as per DRG tradition every last pebble can be cracked away with enough swings.

Alien bugs encircle the player in Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor.
Glyphid Exploders - the glowing ones on the right - can be baited into premature detonation, thinning the herd around them. | Image credit: Ghost Ship Publishing / Rock Paper Shotgun

This malleability of the arena creates risks and possibilities that I was still experimenting with after my 15th failed mission. I can dig escape tunnels, sure – but what if I focused my upgrades into the gun that shoots bouncing energy rounds, then lured the bugs into a bespoke kill corridor? Or what if I could juke an entire horde by digging right up to the opposite side of a rock cluster, wait until they crawl around it to follow me in, then bust out the moment it’s clear? Digging, drilling, and blowing up terrain is key to many of Deep Rock Galactic’s more advanced survival strategies, and it makes for a great twist here as well.

Mining minerals isn't just a sideshow to Glyphid slaughter, either. First off, despite being as automatic as the shooting – just walk up to a vein and you start chipping away – resource mining is one of the most reliable sources of boot-soiling tension that Survivor has. It’s just so much god-damned slower than busting through plain rock, while also being essential enough to both mission-specific and permanent upgrades that you can’t ignore it. So any moment, however fleeting, where there’s space between you and the nearest alien should ideally be spent wrenching gemstones from a wall while that gap rapidly closes. Tink, tink, tink, the pickaxe goes, as a hundred man-size ants descend upon your turned back. I’ve never whined "Come onnnnn" so often at an act of manual labour.

A dwarf uses a freshly-dug tunnel as a chokepoint in Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor.
They're trapped in here with me. Until the big one comes. Then I'm fleeing. | Image credit: Ghost Ship Publishing / Rock Paper Shotgun

Again, though, these minerals are a real lifeline, and because hacking them out will treat you to the same deeply pleasing, twinkling sound effects as DRG proper, emptying a vein is just as morish as hoovering up a pile of XP pickups. And it’s all the more satisfying to spend them knowing that they were gathered under extreme stress – assuming, that is, you wouldn’t rather keep the spoils. My favourite of the randomly offered bonuses you get for killing a miniboss bug is a gold-fuelled damage multiplier, y’see. For every 5 gold in your pocket, you get 1% extra weapon damage, a devilish bargain that’s far more interesting than any flat 3% reload speed bonus. My best dive thus far was powered by the kind of 40% lethality buff that only a life of pure greed and would allow, dismissing more rounded upgrade opportunities to avoid draining my pockets.

I don’t doubt that there are, as in Vampire Survivors, actual strategies and builds to aim for. But to be clear, my most successful dwarf was not one that chose balanced and considered upgrades, but one that walked up to the final boss with basic gear and nineteen kilos of gold ore falling from his trousers.

Survivor is so early in development that I don’t feel it unrealistic to hope for more utterly game-changing choices like this. My main worry at this stage is that while you can get a nice flurry of bullets and lasers going, Survivor is a bit short on those power spike moments: those times when you unlock a new toy or skill that can bring a wobbling playthrough back on track. With a few exceptions, Survivor’s upgrades feel deeply incremental, which both makes them less exciting to acquire and ultimately denies any kind of intoxicating turnarounds. Reaching critical mass in Vampire Survivors, when you start running at the wall of enemies instead of away from them, is a joy that’s never really replicated in the Deep Rock Galactic version. If anything, this is one area where Survivor could stand to be a little more derivative.

A dwarf approaches his escape craft with seconds to spare in Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor.
Another quirk: at the end of every stage, you'll need to book it to a drop pod to escape. Not sure why it flies back upward though - surely it should go deeper each time? | Image credit: Ghost Ship Publishing / Rock Paper Shotgun

I’ve still been having a grand old time, mind. And it’s not like Survivor’s own ideas aren’t any good: in addition to the mining aspects, I can see a lot of potential in Bosco, your floating AI-controlled robot buddy. He’s also in Deep Rock Galactic as a replacement for teammates when playing solo, and here, he can be even more useful, with his own upgradable weapons and stats that expand greatly on his abilities in the original. Most of these are more ways to automatically make bugs deceased, though I’d be interested to see future builds adding more ways to interact with Bosco directly. There’s one neat power that creates a shock beam between him and your dwarf, frying any bugs caught in between; more reasons to keep Bosco’s positioning in mind while managing your own would only deepen the game’s tactical depth.

Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor is launching into early access later this year, and I’m definitely going to keep an eye on it. Partly because yes, it is a mashup of one of my favourite co-op shooters (it even has a Rock and Stone key) and the best game of 2022. But it’s also, even at this early stage, a compelling call to the darkness.

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