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Vampire Survivors — a cheap, minimalistic indie game — is my game of the year

Kill monsters, pick up XP gems, upgrade character.
Enlarge / Kill monsters, pick up XP gems, upgrade character.

If you’re a fan of roguelites and haven’t heard of Vampire Survivorslet me be the first to welcome you to your new obsession.

The “gothic horror casual game with roguelike elements,” as its developer calls it, has been taking the indie world by storm over the past year, racking up over 120,000 “overwhelmingly positive” reviews on Steam and capturing effusive praise from critics. And until today, it was still in Early Access.

The game has even spawned a new sub-subgenre, with games of its ilk incorporating ideas from bullet-hell shoot-em-ups, roguelites, and timed horde-survival games. These games are almost all in Early Access, and every last one is curiously cheap— $ 5 seems to be the price cap. But while many pretenders to the throne have arisen, Vampire Survivors still reigns supreme. It was the second real game of its kind, after the 2021 Android-exclusive Magic Survival.

Why is a small game with unassuming pixel graphics and minimalistic gameplay so popular?

That’s easy — it’s fantastically, relentlessly fun.

What a horrible night to have a curse

The gameplay loop is simple: Kill monsters, collect the experience-point gems they drop to level up, and try to piece together a character build strong enough to keep pace with the game’s ever-escalating difficulty. Survive for 30 minutes and you’ve won (at the end of a successful run, “the reaper” appears and kills you, but still, you’ve won).

Here’s the twist, though. You do only two things in Vampire Survivors: move your character around and make decisions about what abilities to take and upgrade as you level up. Your character’s weapons — you start with one but add more as a run progresses — fire automatically at a set pace; it’s up to you to position your hero to stay out of danger and be in the right place to hit enemy targets. Some weapons target the nearest enemy, some shoot in specific or random directions, and others fire at random enemies. So the gameplay basically boils down to “walk around the screen as enemies trudge toward your position.”

I get it: That sounds minimalistic to a fault — and probably more than a little boring. But if you’re anything like me, this game will get its hooks into you.

One of my favorite aspects of roguelites is their ability to distill the essence of character progression in a role-playing game down to a bite-sized experience. For my money, there’s nothing more satisfying in gaming than taking a character from zero to hero, carefully selecting new abilities and gear to make your build tough enough to take on endgame challenges. Roguelites like The Binding of Isaac have you start each 30- to 60-minute run as a wimpy pushover, but by the end of that brief play session, you’re a veritable god of destruction.

Vampire Survivors takes that concept and simplifies it even further. What if you could build a character in a cool 20–30 minutes, but your build “plays itself,” and the only thing you need to worry about is positioning?

It might sound like “the lazy person’s roguelite,” but there’s more going on than you might initially think.

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