Vampire Survivors review (early access): an unquestionably compulsive treat
It wouldn’t work without the sounds. The thwop of your whip, the thwick of your dagger. The electronic twinkle of health-restoring chicken, which sounds uncannily like the shield’s up sound from 1999 classic 3D Astro Blaster. The ‘boo boo de boo, boo boo de boop’ of the chest-opening jingle, to which my shoulders cannot help but shimmy. Best of all: the plink of picking up an XP-granting gem - at first a sporadic treat, soon a near constant hum as the tide of enemies grows from a trickle into a flood.
Vampire Survivors is a simple, early access, arcade-style game about dodging an ever-growing horde of monsters while acquiring spells that fire automatically. You can (and should) play it with one hand while eating a bag of crisps. It’s a very good way to spend £2.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but not much. You begin each run as one of seven unlockable vampires, each with their own starting weapon and ability. Maybe you’ll spew fireballs and have a shorter weapon cooldown time, or blast lightning while enjoying slightly increased AOE. It doesn’t matter too much, because within five minutes those buffs will be submerged under the sweet, sweet boons of a dozen or more level-ups. If you survive for 30 minutes, death itself comes along and insta-kills you, which means you win.
It feels generous long before it becomes overwhelming. Notable power increases come swiftly, with each level-up offering you a choice between three or four upgrades. Vampires who want to survive the longest should start off by focusing on upgrading as small a pool of weapons as possible, because the later tiers compound the benefits you get from earlier ones - especially if you manage to evolve a weapon by pairing it with a specific bit of gear. There is glee to be had in transforming a lowly fire wand into an artifact of meteoric, path-clearing destruction. This is a game that understands how to escalate.
You’ll perceive those early bats and ghouls as individual threats, at first. Specific hazards to manoeuvre around, where each can be mentally assigned a dagger or a razor-boomerang. You don’t control how or when your weapons fire, but you can still shuffle about to maximize their impact. Within minutes, though, that way of seeing becomes untenable. Individuals get subsumed into the horde, and your mindset shifts from hit and run tactics into something that more closely resembles herding.
It’s an interesting transition. When enemies drop XP gems they don’t disappear, so there’s no need to immediately dart in and grab them, but it still makes sense to coax the horde into dropping them where they’re convenient. For me, that means patrolling in a big circle, spinning up a ball of monsters for my weapons to chip away at. It’s a tactic that affords me long stretches where I can let my brain go squishy, letting my vision swap between the minutia and the mass, like a magic eye picture made from monster flesh. Sometimes it’s like I’m looking at moving planetary bodies, spiralling around an orbit I’m both designing and in danger of succumbing to. Lean into that kind of thinking and you can fall right in. It’s nice.
Too nice. The complacent will get their comeuppance, primarily in the form of a sea of skeletons that spawn in at around 11 minutes. It’s the first of several milestones where Vampire Survivors says, "Oh, you thought you were on top of things, did you?" and at first your only reply will be death. Fortunately, there are meta-upgrades you can buy between each run to expand your vocabulary, granting you increased health, damage, move speed, XP rates and more that let you start off a little stronger. It’s a familiar loop, but no less compulsive for it.
'Compulsive' really is the word, here. Most of us are wired in such a way that watching numbers go up feels good, and there’s enough passivity baked into Vampire Survivors that comparisons to idle games aren’t unwarranted. There’s the same basic allure of escalation, and the same brand of absurdity within its eventual cacophony of flailing axes and rainbow-hued destruction. In my most recent run, I reached a point where I could just stand still, safe and snug inside a life-stealing death field paired with spinning glyphs, giant phantom swords, even gianter scythes, bouncing mega-bones and lightning blasts. Even so, that run was no sure thing.
If you’re not relaxing, you are most likely very nearly dying. Certain stretches demand constant attention, where you’re hovering a hair’s breadth away from destruction, utterly surrounded, desperately seeking out the path of least resistance. Your survival strategies will be simple, but they will be called for - following the wake of those evolved fireballs, for instance, or staying in range of a screen-clearing power up. Whether those drop in the first place, though, is down to luck. Same goes for landing the right upgrades, or happening on a chest that contains three or even five items as opposed to just one. I don’t think it’s possible to win Vampire Survivors without getting a little lucky.
Success doesn’t always have to feel earned to be enjoyed. Sometimes you can just let your shoulders shimmy and explode a goblin.
That’s fine. This is one context where I’m happy to be beguiled by a snazzy box-opening jingle, where ribbons fly across my screen and rubies pour down from the ceiling. Those rare, magical chests that equate to leveling up five times at once provide a frankly ridiculous power boost that it’s hard not to revel in, unbalanced as they may be. Success doesn’t always have to feel earned to be enjoyed. Sometimes you can just let your shoulders shimmy and explode a goblin.
Look, just go try the free demo on Itch and you’ll know within moments whether you want to play more. There are only two levels so far, and I’ve beaten them both on the unlockable hyper-mode where everything moves twice as fast. I’ve savored nearly every second of those swirling, nigh-hypnotic patterns, parting seas of monsters like Moses if he had a plus 50% spinach damage buff. There’s room to introduce more enemies that force you to mix up your tactics and move in specific ways, but it takes a good few hours before their absence begins to be felt - but hey, this is early access.
The real question isn’t whether you should pick up Vampire Survivors while it’s £2 (as the price is set to go up); it’s whether you should wait until it’s finished before you jump in. “The full version will have more characters, stages, weapons, RPG elements, and new major features like Story mode and Arcanas”, says the Steam blurb. I’m not sure what either of those last two entail, but I know I’ll be back to find out.