Why is everyone on your Steam friends list playing Vampire Survivors?

Every so often, a game comes along that seems to capture the attention of your entire friends list at one point or another. Often, this is a big-name release on the console platforms, but sometimes it happens on Steam with a small-scale title that everyone suddenly becomes obsessed with. Such is the case with Vampire Survivors, an Early Access game from UK-based developer Luca, also known as poncle.

In many ways, it’s a lot more impressive when a title like Vampire Survivors achieves such widespread recognition, since Steam as a platform is absolutely saturated with the garbage that is dumped onto it on a daily basis — and thus it’s easy for the genuinely good games to get swept along with the flow of sewage and get lost without ever really having a chance.

Vampire Survivors first released on indie-centric platform Itch back in October of 2021, and was originally free. Over time, though, it’s expanded into something much more than its original intention, shifting to Steam’s Early Access programme in December of 2021. It’s not 100% clear exactly where the sudden surge in interest came from, but it can perhaps at least be partially attributed to indie-centric Twitch streamer SplattercatGaming (85K followers), who posted about the game in early January noting that “it’s 3 bucks and it’s the shit”.

It is indeed, as the children say, “the shit”. Take a look!

Vampire Survivors is a game that blends elements of shoot ’em up, roguelite and idle game — though don’t run away screaming if you hate the latter as much as I do, because it’s primarily the incremental progression elements taken from idle games rather than the actual gameplay mechanics.

In Vampire Survivors, you take on the role of one of several distinctly Castlevania-inspired but not copyright-infringing vampire hunters, and it’s your task to simply survive as long as possible against incoming hordes of pixel-art undead. Each character starts with a different weapon which fires automatically at set periods, so all you have to do is move around and ensure that 1) you don’t die and 2) you’re in a suitable position for your weapon to do some damage. Oh, and as you defeat foes, you’ll also want to wander around and pick up the loot they drop.

The most common loot you’ll find comes in the form of experience crystals. Defeating enemies by themselves doesn’t yield experience; you’ll need to collect these crystals in order to level up. And when you level up, you get the opportunity to either add a new weapon to your arsenal, or upgrade one of your existing ones. Much like in games such as Dead Cells and Hades, you’re given a choice of three options (sometimes four if you’ve upgraded your Luck stat) and asked to pick the one you want — you’re not given completely free choice.

Vampire Survivors

The different characters also grow in power in different ways as they level up. One of the starting characters increases their base damage every five levels, for example, while the other increases the amount of experience crystals dropped by enemies every five levels. Between this passive skill and their starting weapon, you can develop a distinct playstyle according to how you enjoy playing the game.

A substantial metagame is added to the Vampire Survivors experience in several ways. Firstly, you can acquire gold both from treasure chests occasionally dropped by enemies (which also effectively act as one or more immediate level-ups, allowing you to acquire new weapons or upgrade existing ones) and from simply performing well in the game. This can be spent between runs on upgrading various abilities and unlocking new characters. The abilities effectively allow you to start the game in a slightly better position than you would on a fresh save, while we’ve already talked about the benefits of additional characters.

The second layer of metagame comes in the form of achievements. Besides simply providing the usual bragging rights and “collectible” element, each achievement also unlocks a new weapon or character. In the case of weapons, you don’t simply “get” these; as in many other roguelites, unlocking a weapon means that it’s added into the pool of potential loot and/or level-up benefits rather than simply handed over to you. This means that the more you play the game, the more varied and interesting it gets; the more weapons in the pool, the more variation between each run.

Vampire Survivors

And herein lies the core appeal of Vampire Survivors. It’s simple to play and easy to understand — but demonstrating true mastery over the game is something that is going to take time. And, pleasingly, you can define “mastery” however you choose. It could be reaching a particular level with a character. It could be surviving for a certain amount of time. It could be achieving a particular number of kills. It could be unlocking all the achievements. It could be fully upgrading your character.

Or it could be all of the above — that’s the beauty of this game. It’s a straightforward, simple, arcade-style game that rewards your continued engagement not with cynical “player retention” systems designed to keep you grinding and/or paying up for microtransactions — a noteworthy point, particularly considering poncle’s background in making online casino and slot machine games — but with additional ways to have fun. It’s considerately designed, it’s highly entertaining, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

That’s why everyone on your Steam friends list is playing Vampire Survivors. And for just a couple of quid, you can too.

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Pete Davison
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