Vampire Survivors is a screen-clearing thrillride with carpet-bombing doves

A player faces a huge mob in Vampire Survivors.
(Image credit: Poncle)

Vampire Survivors is one of those games that has absolutely no right being as good as it is. The entire thing is controlled using WASD. It's a genre we've all been playing for decades—top-down shooter—with an art style heavily indebted to Konami's Castlevania. Even the name isn't particularly arresting. But if you judge something by what it sets out to achieve, this is an extremely high quality game.

What distinguishes Vampire Survivor is the weapons. The enemy designs are great but, fundamentally, the only real behaviour they exhibit is homing in on your character: Touching baddies loses health and, with no invulnerability window after taking damage, this one of those systems where you can live on the edge and take a nick here or there, but get overwhelmed and you're dead in seconds.

What's great about the game is how you kill them, which initially is on a one-by-one basis with the aim of incinerating giant swathes of them at once. The weapons are unique and each follow their own mini-upgrade path, with certain combinations leading to an ultimate upgrade (the first time you get one of these, the game tells you what combination triggered it: Or you could just cheat and check out our guide.)

(Image credit: Poncle)

One example would be, in this heavily Castlevania-flavoured game, the whip. This is the default character Antonio Belpaese's weapon, and has a minor element of control to it inasmuch as it will automatically fire in the direction your character is facing. The first upgrade makes it whip either side on every attack. Subsequent upgrades see its number of cracks and area of effect increase, to the extent it's soon a ludicrous loop of death shooting out every few seconds, before the final upgrade adds a leech ability: Transforming the weapon from a crowd-thinner into a tool that can help you survive the hairier moments of lategame.

'Lategame' is probably an odd word here but that's one of the things Vampire Survivors manages to nail too. Each run can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, and I've no idea just how bananas it can get beyond: Very bananas. By the end of one run I wasn't sure exactly what combination of power-ups was going on, but enemies were basically being nuked by birds as soon as they dared to enter the screen edges, my character was floating around in a semi-invulnerable bubble with anything that dared approach disintegrating, and every second a bunch of wild red scythes shot out in a circle and eviscerated whatever was left. When the game finally managed to heave enough stuff onto the screen to actually kill me I was kind of affronted.

That's how this sucks you in, and keeps you playing. For a £2 game of such seeming simplicity I've currently clocked 12 hours in this and don't think I've seen anything near what it has to offer. It builds from a quiet, almost tactical, opening: You duck and dodge to eke as much out of your weapons as possible, snaffling up the XP gems and deciding what 'loadout' of weapons you want to go for.

Each run limits you to ten items total (there are many more) and they're a mix of straight-up weapons and passive buffs. The buffs may sound less exciting but, honestly, they're what turns a decent setup into a near-unbeatable death machine, capable of boosting your fire, damage, area of effect, and of course synergising with certain weapons to unlock their super saiyan form.

(Image credit: Poncle)

Then as things ramp up you have your little armoury, you're focused on making the weapons better and whittling down crowds. When the game decides, 'OK, let's kill this guy', you have basically the firepower of a small nation to respond with: And it doesn't care. It just keeps on coming with more and more ludicrously powerful waves until, inevitably, you die.

At which point, you go into a screen and spend your earned coins on permanent upgrades for all characters or on new characters. My favourite so far is Mortaccio, a wee skeleton that starts with a bone you bounce around enemies: Serious Breakout vibes as you dance around trying to get enemies to circle you then let that bad boy fly. Upgrades add more bones, increase the duration of the bounces, the length they stay around, and soon entire festival crowds of monsters are being erased by a clutch of bones thrown in their midst.

Vampire Survivors is the kind of thing Steam can occasionally do so well, putting a seriously high-quality if niche title that costs a couple of quid in front of a simply enormous audience. I discovered this thanks to a few friends playing it and, for the price, it's insane value-for-money. This game squeezes so much out of what seems to be such a limited concept, and once you start hitting the later stages with a character bombarding the life out of the screen can be exhilarating.

Judge something on what it sets out to achieve. Vampire Survivors aims to be an enormously fun wave shooter that builds up to ludicrous extremes, while letting you kill a million skeletons on the way. You have to say: This is a job amazingly well-done.

Vampire Survivors is £2.09 on Steam.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."