I liked Vampire Survivors, a lot (opens in new tab). Indeed, we all liked it so much that it inspired a wave of imitators (opens in new tab), some with genuinely bright ideas and clever twists. Picayune Dreams (opens in new tab), though, which recently got a beefy free demo on Steam, is the first one to take that horde mode, bullet hell gameplay in a new direction, to repurpose it instead of just following the leader (credit to Alpha Beta Gamer (opens in new tab) for the spot).
The Vampire Survivors basics are here: you're dropped in a big, repeating play field where more and more dangerous enemies stream in as time goes on. Beating them drops experience pickups you use to level up, with a choice of three randomly selected upgrades and new weapons to pick from demanding improvisational build crafting.
Instead of Vampire Survivors' singular 30 minute levels, Picayune Dreams has a more classic roguelike progression with five minute levels capped with a boss, and this is where things get spicy. These guys blow Vampire Survivors' boss fights away, just full-on Touhou (opens in new tab) bullet hell baddies demanding precise, masterful movement.
I've only gotten past the first one of them, a deranged space rabbit with a grudge and some connection to your backstory. It's a much more difficult game than Vampire Survivors and really calls back to classic shmups, still trying to preserve that late-game Vampire Survivors fantasy while not letting the game just play itself after a certain point.
The whole thing's got a kind of Evangelion meets '90s render pack look to it, and that's just a full four-quadrant hit for me (see also: Hylics (opens in new tab) and Dreamwild (opens in new tab)). I was surprised to discover that the game's principal artist is AndyLand (opens in new tab), who is also working on the similarly surreal and sublime adventure game, Endacopia (opens in new tab).
Picayune Dreams has a killer breakcore soundtrack (opens in new tab) by composer milkypossum, and the game already hints at a deeper lore and involved storyline. At the risk of spoiling too much, there was a huge genre shift for a storytelling beat after I got past the first boss, and this sort of bold swing always wins me over. It reminds me of similar "oh shit" moments from NieR or Undertale.
This three person effort from AndyLand, milkypossum, and programmer Stepford (opens in new tab) is already shaping up to be something special. If you dig shmups, surreal '90s throwback art, and cryptic, cerebral storytelling like I do, you can check out Picayune Dreams' substantial demo and wishlist the game on Steam (opens in new tab).