Vampire Survivors: A miserable little pile of unlocks

I randomly tuned in to a Twitch stream last week, because the notification on my phone said the streamer in question was playing “the new Castlevania game”. I didn’t know there was a new Castlevania game!!

There isn’t. It was… somewhat misleading. The game being played was, in fact, a $3 indie game called Vampire Survivors. To be fair, this game does rip a lot of ideas (and maybe even sprites) directly from the Castlevania series, but it doesn’t really play like them at all.

And me, I turned around and immediately bought the game and sank most of that evening into it. Then I kept playing it pretty much every day after that. But more on that later!

Vampire Survivors is, as it says right there, a survival game. But unlike Minecraft or Don’t Starve and their ilk, it’s a very arcadey survival game. You play as a solo character, facing never-ending waves of enemies that slowly bear down on you from all sides. Enemies drop experience gems when defeated, and levelling up gives you a chance to choose from three random perks, which can either be a new weapon, a new buff, or an upgrade to one of your existing perks. So you kill monsters and try to build up your weaponry so that it’s strong enough to handle each new wave. Very simple stuff, but still a satisfying gameplay loop.

The goal of each session is to survive for 30 minutes. At the beginning, it seems easy enough – you start with one weapon, but there are only a handful of bats coming after you. No big deal. But most of my runs ended around the 10-minute mark, with 15 being the better ones. I’m not sure what the key strategy is, but eventually there will be waves that come at you in solid walls, where your only hope is to try to carve a path through the crowd and escape as the circle of monsters around you closes in tighter and tighter. My last run was my best, and I got killed at 29:35. So close to victory! It was a charmed run, but not quite charmed enough.

Actually, I think I do know the key strategy: it’s to evolve a weapon as soon as possible. But that’s tough! You need to have levelled up a weapon to max, and be in possession of specific passive buff item. If you’ve satisfied those conditions, then I think you just need to cross your fingers and hope that the RNG rolls you the evolved weapon next time your character levels up. Or maybe the evolved weapons only show up in treasure chests dropped by bosses? I don’t really know! What I do know is that on that near-victory run, I was able to evolve my knife, and that was absolutely the driving force behind how I managed to survive as long as I did.

So how does this game rip off Castlevania? First, let’s have a quick look at the character selection screen. You’ve got Trevor, two different Syphas, a copyright-neutral Grant expy, and what appears to be an Alucard of each gender. The old dude is, I don’t know, Alfred from Bloodstained. And of course, a generic skeleton and ghost for good measure. Essentially the Castlevania III crew and a few stragglers.

While you can eventually get whatever kind of build you like on any given character, they’re all made unique in two ways: their starting weapon, and an innate perk. For example, Trev- I mean, Antonio starts with a whip and gets a 10% strength boost every ten levels. Gennaro starts with the sad, little throwing knife, but his perk is that he gets an extra projective for every weapon, so he actually gets two knives at the start! I haven’t played every character yet, but Gennaro seems to be a solid pick, since you can get a huge number of projectiles going a lot faster than with anyone else.

Moving on to the weapons/buffs, they include but are not limited to:
– A whip
– A throwing knife that flies straight ahead
– An axe that is tossed in a high arc
– A bible that rotates around the player
– A cross that you throw, which returns like a boomerang
– A vial of “santa” water that causes a small fire on the field
– A diamond that bounces off the screen edges at a 45-degree angle
– A clove of garlic that hurts enemies that get too close
– A laurel that protects you from damage
In addition to these, you can break braziers that spawn randomly around the arena. Inside of them, you may find:
– A roasted chicken that heals you
– Coins or bags of money
– A stopwatch that temporarily freezes all monsters

If any of that is sounding a little familiar, that’s because everything listed above was lifted directly from Castlevania. And while I get that you can only draw a little pixel-art knife so many ways, it seems like a lot of the sprites are the actual sprites from different Castlevania games. Plus there are a few enemies (specifically the Alraune) that are definitely taken directly out of the Symphony of the Night sprite sheet.

Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be an actual vampire enemy in the game yet. Lots of bats! No human-shaped vampires, though. There’s a not-Dracula on the title screen, but that’s really about it.

That said, Vampire Survivors is still in Steam Early Access, and will likely get additional content drops over time to flesh it out a bit more. There are currently nine playable characters, roughly a dozen weapons (not including evolved versions), and probably just as many passive buff items. The game features a robust in-game achievement list, and a ton of unlockable power-ups to give you an edge in the fight against evil. The only part of the game that feels lacking are the paltry two maps. And also the lack of an actual victory screen. I took a break to play a couple rounds before I started writing this paragraph, and managed to win! Or, to be more accurate, I managed to survive for 30 minutes. As it turns out, once the timer hits 30:00, Death shows up and kills you. A little bit disheartening, no?

And to tell the full story, since I started writing this review (is this a review?) about a week ago, an update was released that added a third stage. Also it added environmental obstacles to the first stage, which, before the update, was essentially just a huge green square. Now it’s got some plants and stuff! My only complaint is that enemies can pass through all these new obstacles as if they aren’t even there, but the player character cannot. It doesn’t make a huge difference, really, but I’d appreciate the consistency.

I guess the only question left to ask is, is Vampire Survivors any fun? Well, yeah. It’s a lot of fun! I’ve played at least one round almost every day since I purchased it, and usually more, because it’s the quintessential “just one more try” game. Every time you die, it’s because of something you know you can do better. Whether that’s to choose different power-ups, or to evade monsters instead of running through them to collect EXP gems, it’s always easy to point out exactly why your run died. For all of the times I’ve played, never once did I feel like a death was cheap or unfair. It was always because I screwed something up, rather than because my luck just didn’t pan out. There is kind of a DPS check around the 15-minute mark, but I see that more as encouragement for the player to figure out how to build a character strong enough to overcome that challenge.

So yeah, I think it’s pretty easy to recommend Vampire Survivors to just about anyone. It’s simple, but tough. The mix-and-match upgrade system provides a good amount of variety. And probably most important of all, it costs a paltry three dollars. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve definitely gotten more than two coffees worth of enjoyment out of this one. And I’m a pretty big fan of coffee.

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