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Vampire Survivors review: an unquestionably compulsive treat until you reach the endgame

Stick your hand back in the crisps

Vampire Survivors is morish. Pulsating lights stretch in a vertical column from the top to the bottom of my screen, scattering into deadly particles like notes played on an accordion of cosmic destruction. Fireworks burst in every corner, thanks to the evolved version of my diamond-spewing runetracer weapon that’s now called ‘NO FUTURE’. Monsters go pop by their thousands. Flaming meteors still abound.

Vampire Survivors is an arcade-style survivathon about weaving through fields of enemies as your weapons automatically obliterate the oncoming hordes. It’s still about collecting upgrades until you’re the locus of an unstoppable death machine, and now that it’s left early access that death machine comes in more colours and more flavours. There are new maps to conquer, new characters to conquer with, and new secrets to uncover. If you haven’t played since the early access launch then yes, it’s worth checking out the new stuff. If you haven’t played at all, then God yes, please check out all the stuff. Or like, most of it.

Vampire Survivors is still morish. Up to a point.

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The core appeal remains the same: escalation. Within 30 minutes, if you survive a stage until its very end, you go from chucking out a mesley couple of daggers to a never-ending dagger hurricane being just one small component in your whirling armageddon arsenal. Basic armaments combine into evolved, superpowered versions of themselves that munch up monsters faster than kids let loose on British baked corn snacks. Every run earns you gold, which can be spent on permanent stat buffs that send you into your next run a little tougher.

Most enemies drop gems when they die, which you can hoover up for XP and an oh-so-satisfying sound effect. It only takes a few minutes before that sound becomes a constant rush in your ears; the power curve is palpable. It still feels generous, with occasional explosions of potency sprinkled along the way thanks to either chests that contain five items at once rather than their regular one, or the way you occasionally get to randomly level up ten times in a row. Go on, Vampire Survivors says, sometimes. Who cares if you’ve earned it. The final level throws a curveball that turns that generosity on its head, but we’ll figure out how we feel about that later.

One striking difference is that every level except the first one now gives you objectives in the form of a tome or two placed in far-off corners of the map. You don’t need to nab ‘em to complete the stage, but they do unlock new parts of the game: anything from a cheat sheet for weapon evolutions to a new system that lets you choose up to three powerful passive buffs, such as enabling crits for certain weapons or tripling the times they bounce. Those are juicy, but perhaps the most impactful addition is the unlockable map, which is handy for both tracking down coffins that unlock extra characters and for moseying over to leftover healing chicken drops when you find yourself in a pinch.

One striking difference is that every level except the first one now gives you objectives in the form of a tome or two placed in far-off corners of the map

Having to track down those objectives, among others, also adds tension. Rather than noodling around in optimal XP-farming patterns of your own devising (such as the windy death balls I liked spinning up in my early access review), journeying out means sacrificing valuable harvesting time. It’s a welcome complication, figuring out a balance between farming and travelling. A light, undemanding pressure to mix things up a little.

The new stages aren’t the wide, open fields of the first level either. None of them radically change what you get up to, but they do mean you can derive some satisfaction from figuring out weapons and characters that suit, say, a stage where the enemies entirely come from above and below. Magical accordion, go go go.

That said, until the fifth and final of the normal stages, I found I could romp my way to victory mostly by simply picking tried and tested combos from my first couple of hours back in early access. It’s a shame most of the new weapons I tried didn’t seem powerful enough to justify swapping from what I knew already worked, but the truth is I never really minded. That lack of demand to innovate felt in keeping with a game that was willing to hand me ten level-ups in a row just for the sake of it, a space to flex rather than a rockface to navigate. Beating that final stage, though, has so far proved beyond me.

There’s a very specific obstacle, in the form of a reaper who summons a field of blue bubbles at the five-minute mark that march up from the bottom of the screen, forcing me to move constantly upwards without a chance to collect the gems I need to grow powerful enough to deal with later waves. I can do damage to him, but so far not enough to kill him. I think the correct strategy involves swapping to item combinations I’m not so familiar with, but bypassing the bubble man will require experimentation and grit.

I’ve reached the point that separates the Vampire men from the Vampire boys, and I have discovered I am but a boy. Vampire survivors sits in this strange space where for most of the game some work is required of you, especially at first when you figure out which weapons to prioritise, but for the most part you’re free to sit back and enjoy the ride. There are stretches that keep you on your toes, desperately twisting and turning down whichever ever-closing safety corridors your weapons happen to carve out, but that demands a different kind of cognition to ironing out problems with your build choices. It’s also still the case that runs can turn on whether or not you land those lucky power-boosts, and that a run that seems to be going splendidly can come crashing to the ground within moments - but all that only started to frustrate me when I came up against that final hurdle.

I feel like I’ve been coasting along down a pleasant hill only to find the finish line lies atop a secondary hill, with a bubble-blowing bastard lying in wait to shove me off my bike and laugh at me. The game I can play with one hand in a packet of crisps now wants me to sit up and study. Waah.

I’m still glad there’s depth here, that there are balanced synergies to mull over, and even that the bubble wizard presents specific constraints for other people to puzzle their way out of. I could also, maybe, bypass him by brute force if I pursue the unlocks for the specifically very powerful Arcanas I just googled for. Many will enjoy that chase, but it’s not for me.

I was in it for the plinkety-plink rush of clattering into a huge pile of gems. I was in it for the five item chest boogie, the mindless yet mindful monster shepherding, the giant meteors and the rainbow scythes. Those are all still here, and you can push into further and deadlier territory than ever before, especially if you get far enough to unlock the endless mode, or the modifier that lets you keep upgrading weapons past their usual point. Vampire Survivors is a bigger, better playground now - albeit one with a bodyguard blocking the final set of swings.

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