If 2021 saw Valheim come out of nowhere with its explosive popularity, 2022’s equivalent is arguably Vampire Survivors. It’s a low-key indie game developed by Poncle, who mostly consists of one person, and has a simple presentation and seemingly simple gameplay.
It’s one of those games that you can totally ignore and won’t get the hype, but once you touched it, you immediately get it and you now land on a problem of not being able to stop playing. Over and over and over.
Here’s the gist of Vampire Survivors. You play as a character and must simply survive an onslaught of a neverending amount of enemies. It’s a roguelike, in the way that you get to find random weapons and relics to equip, and your run is finite (there are also persistent upgrades, so it’s actually a rougelite).
But it’s also a bullet hell game. Sorry, reverse bullet hell. Because in Vampire Survivors, you are the bullet hell.
There are still many elements in Vampire Survivors that do relate to its bullet hell comparisons. Like you still need to dodge and weave, and many of your weapons shoot out projectiles. But you are the focal point of the screen, not the enemies. The wave of monstrosities all shuffle, bumble and congregate to swarm you to death, but your weapons and weapon-boosting relics will make short work of them.
But the role reversal here gives off a different vibe. Instead of a David vs Goliath story of a puny character you control triumphing over the impossible, in Vampire Survivors, it’s about the ascendency towards being an untouchable menace.
At the most bonkers of levels, you can simply stay put as you see the endless horrors unable to penetrate your impregnable defence from your overpowered weapons. None can dare reach an inch close to you. Yet they still keep coming like moths attracted to a bug zapper, doomed to meet their demise as you grasp how much of a monster you have become.
However, it’s not an idle game where you can simply do nothing and see numbers go up, but you are striving to turn each run into an idle game.
To reach that, you have to keep moving. As enemies die, they drop gems that you must collect to gain experience. And you want to get experience to level up to get your random unlock of a weapon, relic or upgrades for any existing weapons and relics you have.
Even better, stronger enemies drop treasure chests, which can give you at least 1 free upgrade, or if you’re lucky, 5 free upgrades. The chest opening does all the song and dance, it’s more elaborate and hyped up if you’re getting the ultra-rare 5-upgrade drop, giving you the excitement and satisfaction of pulling a gacha roll. But without the misery of spending unhealthy amounts of money.
(A quick glance on Poncle’s website shows that the developer has had experience working on slot machine games. Which may explain the bedazzling presentation each time you open a chest.)
It’s that simple gameplay loop, of wanting to get stronger so you can mow down enemies faster so you can get stronger, that is what keeps me coming back for another run of Vampire Survivors.
Many other games have similar loops, wanting to get stronger or wanting to see numbers go up is not a new thing. But Vampire Survivors’ simple art style affords it something no other modern game can do: provide this magnitude of destruction to players.
On one screen, you can have hundreds of sprites all heading to swarm you. If you are not lucky and have a terrible set of weapons you’ll easily be overwhelmed and die, ending the run. You can clearly see when you mess up for not min-maxing your DPS.
But when you are gaming and doing a good job at that, you can mow down enemies as if they are grass on a lawn. Clearing up the unkempt bushes and other flora and leaving a pristine, empty screen is so satisfying and cathartic for some reason.
Maybe it’s because I’m getting old, but the idea of mowing down grass is now my peak power fantasy. And Vampire Survivors delivers that same experience, both metaphorically and literally.
Because apparently, one of the bonus stages you can unlock literally has you go mow down grass, flowers, trees and other flora. I didn’t intend for this analogy to have been taken literally, and I was just flabbergasted when I realised it’s already a thing, the developer had seen the Venn diagram overlap between “mowing down the lawn” and “obliterate huge monstrosities with little to no effort and decided yes, this should also be a thing in this game.
And now I’m hooked on Vampire Survivors. I had one crazy run that went so well. I cleared a stage, found out that you can evolve weapons into even more terrifyingly powerful versions, and was so powerful I can just leave the game idle and still rake in those sweet sweet kills and experience gems. But that was one lucky run, and I’m now stuck wanting to chase that high again, to feel that rush of being so powerful you can mow down grass by just standing there, menacingly.
This could easily be exploited as a free-to-play game with microtransactions galore, it hits that kind of spot, yet Vampire Survivors is a game you have to pay for albeit at a very, very cheap price (only RM8.50 right now on Steam). It can even be free right now if you have PC Game Pass.
If you have a spare 30 minutes or so, you might want to check out Vampire Survivors. It’s still in Early Access right now, but it’s the most fun you can have in under 30 minutes simply by just waggling the left analog stick around (or click-clacking the WASD keys).