Game review: Vampire Survivors on Steam

You know, I honestly did not expect to go this long without reviewing anything, but as I’ve mentioned before, a series of crises month after month left me with no free funds to buy new games. It wasn’t terrible for me, as I’ve got maybe a hundred old games to keep me entertained. But it’s been hell on my poor blog, and my dipping interest in my TBR pile hasn’t really helped matters much. (To be clear, I am trying to read. I just keep hitting points in each book where I add them to the Did Not Finish pile, and I don’t review what I can’t finish. In my mind, it isn’t fair to the author for me to go in swinging with a half-formed opinion.)

Anyway, the gaming sites all released their Game of the Year lists, and Vampire Survivors kept popping up. I wasn’t sold on the sales pitch given by most writers at launch, but when it showed up on so many lists and is apparently crushing the most played lists on Steam and consoles, I figure maybe there has to be fire under all that smokey hype. I went to Steam and saw it was on sale for 3.99, and I thought, Hey, if it sucks, it’s only 4 euros, so there’s no need to be angry about not liking it.

So how do I like it? Let me give you the short version first: I just unlocked all of the in-game collection to get the final character, Queen Sigma, and tonight I’m buying the DLC to keep playing. Yeah, it’s good stuff, y’all. This is a rogue-lite where every round can only last 30 minutes before you’re booted back to the main screen. (Although later on you can turn off that timer if you want.) But it’s that short “bite-sized” chunk of gaming that inspires so many late-night “just one more run” sprees. Every run can unlock something new, or provide its own unique challenge, so the temptation to keep dipping back in for “just one more” is super strong.

Without knowing the developer, in early playing I imagined some programmer at Konami going into a meeting and pitching a new Castlevania game during one of those down times when Dracula was still sleeping off his last Belmont-induced defeat. Said programmer pitched it as such: “The survivors of Dracula’s last attack must clean up all the roaming monsters infesting their lands, and to do so, they’ll level up a bunch of weapons and become walking bullet hells!” Then the Konami execs said, “It’s too crazy and will never work. Get out of here! Baka!” So the programmer left the building, turned around, and yelled, “I’m not crazy, and I can make it work! It’ll sell like chocolate dorayaki! You’ll see! Kusou!” (That last curse being uttered because they looked around and realized that to all the gathered observers, it looked like he was shouting at the building, and thus was thoroughly insane.)

In reality, this game is developed by an Italian, but the art style combined with some very familiar enemy types lend this game a very Castlevania feel. BUT, the real trick is how this doesn’t come off as a play for nostalgia. I think because taking all those familiar enemy concepts and injecting them into a top down free for all makes it all feel new and fresh.

The initial elevator pitch of a reverse bullet hell shmup (shoot ’em up) didn’t do much for me because I expected the endless waves of enemies would still require me to abuse my controller and my thumb to dodge. To a certain extent, the final seconds of many runs can turn out that way, but the first fifteen minutes are mostly just a chill time where I’m lounged back in my seat, picking out which weapons go with what passive items to form evolved weapons. And don’t worry about trying to remember what to do on each run, because all the combinations go in a short list as you unlock them. So at the start of a run, I would pause to dip into the list, and then start the game already knowing which way I wanted the build to go.

At first, getting the final result is harder because with every level earned by picking up XP crystals, a menu pops up with three or four options. (Depending on a character’s level of luck they may have a percentile chance to access a fourth option, but even for them it’s not guaranteed.) There’s no option to skip choosing, so the first few rounds rely more heavily on RNGesus being kind or mean to you. And in this game, RNGesus is not a forgiving role model like Real Jesus. No, in this game RNGesus can often decide he wants to see if you’ll live on the random shit builds he gives you. Yes, it can be done almost every time. But when I’m aiming for a “Bible Thumper” build and I get  “wimpy glass canon” instead, it did chafe my nips a bit.

But this is a rogue-lite game, meaning that you can invest gold accumulated from runs to unlock permanent upgrades. Among these are options to re-roll level-up items and to banish them for the rest of a run. There’s also an option to seal items from all runs, but I never tried using it because really, any weapon can work if you just take the time to evolve it and see how the end-game plays out.

Some weapons are more tricky to level up because the items needed to do so are scattered across the map, and you’ve only got 30 minutes to walk virtual miles. In the end, getting the items and leveling them up will leave you with mere seconds to see what they can do before the Grim Reaper stomps over to kick you out of the sandbox. There is, however, another power-up to unlock that will let you choose an endless run. Then the Grim Reaper is banished, and to leave, you either need to die or manually quit the game. Here, you can really test out those high level evolved weapons and builds, and I’ve used the mode frequently to grind for gold to buy more unlocks. (Prices do get a bit high on some of them, so you have to choose only upgrading after lots of short runs or making a few longer grinding runs.)

There comes a point in the journey of unlocking upgrades and grinding when it becomes possible to set down the controller and leave the room. Yes, readers, even before unlocking all the goodies, I made builds so ridiculously OP that I shut off my monitor and went downstairs to make dinner, watch a movie, play a game on my phone while I’m in the bathroom, and then return to the office to check my progress. Then I’d say something like, “Oh, only level 345? Hmmm, something is still missing, then.” I was missing something because in later runs, I could leave for the same amount of time and find my character is up between  745 to 750. At those levels, the enemies’ strength, numbers, and speed combined with my character’s damage output render the screen in a wash of blinking lights that do very much justify the epilepsy warning at the start of the game.

I’d be failing as a reviewer if I didn’t mention the “flavor” of character and item names. After playing for a day or so, I ended up watching a YouTuber playing the game, and he unlocked a bird and pronounced Peachone as “peach-own.” This is likely to happen for anyone not knowing a little about Italian pronunciation, but the correct way is “peach-oh-nay,” and is a bastardized spelling for piccione, or pigeon. Yes, one of the best weapons in the game is a pigeon. One of the evolved spells in the game is called Mannajja, which is close enough to the proper spelling that I don’t have to explain how to pronounce it. It’s Sicilian dialect, and it loosely translates to “Damn it.”

There’s characters from the cheese families, starting with Imelda Belpaese. Later on you unlock Pugnala (poon-yalla) Provola, Poppea Pecorina, Concetta (Cown-chetta) Caciotta (Cah-chot-ta) and Cavallo (Which may be referring to a horse, but I believe he’s also named after a cheese, Cacio Cavallo.) There’s an in game item that temporarily lets all survivors shoot fire from their mouths and—with a certain Arcana card—out of their asses. It’s called Nduja (en-du-ya) Fritta, and if you don’t know why this is hilarious, you’ve never eaten N’duja. (A very spicy cured meat paste with a lovely smokey aftertaste. When coming to Italy the first time, I ended up eating this on bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for many weeks. It was simply too good to say no to. But eating too much of it can lead to what Johnny Cash called the ring of fire.)

Before concluding the review, I cannot say that the game is all stress-free. The fifth and final regular map gave me fits trying to sort out what build would get me to the end, as did the challenge rooms like The Bone Zone, Tiny Bridge, and Moonglow. Boss Rash (their misspelling, not mine) similarly took me quite a while to unlock because the slow, slow rate of leveling left my characters too weak to actually eliminate any boss, much less take on five bosses all at the same time. I ended up quitting and restarting the Eudaimonia M. boss fight over and over because many characters’ starting weapon and stats left them severely handicapped and unable to deal damage. To be fair, I knew the moment I picked the right character for the run when their starting weapon whacked the boss three times in rapid succession, and that felt real good. In all cases, I took the challenges in stride because after several days of too easy runs, it was interesting to have to sit back and really think what specific character and build direction would get me the win.

Certainly, I could just keep playing the base game to try out more character/build combinations, but as I said at the start, the game has left me with such a glowingly positive feeling that I am going to get the DLC and see if that’s as good or better than what I’ve played. Even if I don’t like it, the developer deserves that little extra reward for making such a damn fine chunk of pure fun. This kind of game proves that you don’t need photo-realistic graphics or a hundred hours of content to be enjoyable. More hardcore gamers will probably finish this up in a week, maybe less, but they’ll come away enjoying their time spent in this little world. Many of them will probably keep coming back for more because it’s just so addictive. Hell, if I’d known it was this good, I would have paid the full asking price for it, since it’s a great deal either way.

I give Vampire Survivors 5 enthusiastic stars, with the caveat that if you have a history of epilepsy, this game is not safe for you. End level flashing is frequent enough that it will trigger an attack, so just don’t risk your health. But for everyone else, from casual gamer to hardcore, this is a fantastic game that will give you many, many hours of joy. So go out there and get it to help show the big companies that some of these indies can succeed by taking big risks instead of retreading the same open-world live service reboots.