Vampire Survivors review + Legacy Of The Moonspell DLC
One of the most beloved, and cheapest, indie games of the year has new DLC and an iOS version but what is Vampire Survivors all about?
We’re already dedicating the rest of the year to reviewing games we’ve missed up till now, but we had to hold on a few days for Vampire Survivors because it’s just been released on iOS and now has its first slice of paid-for DLC. Neither changes the dial very much but one opens it up to a wider audience and the other underlines just what a deceptively well-designed game it is.
We say deceptively because Vampire Survivors is one of the most hilariously ugly games we’ve ever seen. We’re surprised anyone ever gave it a try on Steam, because it just looks like someone knocked up a background in Microsoft Paint and imported a bunch of Castlevania sprites. Given developer poncle had never published a game before there was absolutely no reason to expect greatness, which makes the subsequent surprise over its quality even more enjoyable.
Actually, we do know why the game didn’t immediately get lost in the constant churn of new Steam releases: it’s incredibly cheap. (That and it was in early access for a year.) The price explains the low-tech graphics but after a few minutes of action it quickly becomes clear there’s a lot more to the game than first appears. The next thing you know it’s four hours later and suddenly the game has become not just a bargain but an obsession.
The best way to describe Vampire Survivors is as a dual-stick shooter without the dual sticks. Which is to say it’s an arena-based shooter, much in the style of Robotron: 2084, Smash T.V., and modern descendants such as Nex Machina. The major difference is that you don’t actually aim and instead your character uses their weapons automatically, something in the style of an endless runner.
At first it’s not really clear why it works like that, since it seems to make relatively little difference to proceedings, but apart from making the controls as simple as possible (and easily translatable to smartphones) all of your weapons work on a cooldown timer and so even the default whip is fairly slow, which means you have to get into the rhythm of when it will flick forward and damage enemies.
All the weapons work on different timers, and have different properties, and you can quickly amass a huge range of monster killing equipment. There’re holy bibles that orbit round you, axes that you fling vertically up the screen, boomerang-like crosses (the nods to Castlevania are not subtle), fireballs that target random enemies, magic staffs that target the nearest enemy, knives that shoot out straight in front of you… the list is almost endless and these are just the starter weapons.
You gain a new weapon by levelling up, which in turn is achieved by picking up little blue crystals left behind by defeated monsters, at which point you have a choice of three different upgrades. These are random and while they’re often weapons, they can also be upgrades to ones you’ve already got or other aids such as improved armour, more health, or a faster movement speed. Some make an obvious pair with another item, by doing things such as decreasing cooldown time, so a skilled player never makes their choices randomly.
You’ll need all that and more too, as while relatively few of the enemies (which, in true Castlevania style, encompass more than just vampires) are much of a threat on their own they move in huge hordes that can mean hundreds of them on screen at once. It’s the sort of spectacle that modern games have been curiously bad at replicating, since the only real comparison we can make is to the squirming sprites of Gauntlet, where it seemed like the entire screen was just a sea of enemies.
Vampire Survivors frequently feels like that but what makes it unique is the speed with which you can wipe out the swarms of the undead. Once you have enough weapons at a high enough power you feel like a walking smart bomb, demolishing so many enemies at once it’s impossible to count or target anyone specifically – just hope that your mere existence and level of power will be enough to win through.
It is a shame, though, that none of the monsters do anything other than waddle towards you. There’re some unique formations, such as the plant creatures that form a circle around you, but even they just slowly walk forwards. There are bosses, but they still don’t really have anything in the way of artificial intelligence and are mostly just bigger, bullet sponge versions of smaller enemies.
As well as the in-game upgrades there’s also a small roguelite element, in that you collect coins as you play, which can only be spent once you die, on the main menu, to permanently improve things like health and speed.
This helps to get past the game’s main problem: once you understand what’s going on, and how the systems work, the pacing proves to be surprisingly slow, so when you start from scratch each time it takes ages to get to a point where you’ll likely to lose – which then happens very quickly as you’re killed by an enemy or formation you haven’t encountered before.
This is less of a problem once you start spending money and are able to skip forward to subsequent stages, but there is a wall after the first couple of hours where it feels like you have no forward momentum, and nothing is going to change. You’ll push through this quicker than you think but there’s no denying that the pacing isn’t a bit off.
That would’ve been more of a complaint if you were being charged full price, but the amount of entertainment Vampire Survivors provides for its miniscule price tag means the value for money is off the charts. The base game costs just £4 and the new DLC is a hilariously modest £1.59.
If you’ve played and enjoyed the base game we shouldn’t need to say a thing to convince you to buy the DLC, but it contains a new map, that’s larger and more structured than the others – most of which just scroll and repeat forever. The theme of the map is Japanese mythology, so you’ve got new monsters, eight new characters, 13 new weapons, and six new music tracks (all the music is great and, as you might guess, very reminiscent of Castlevania).
It may not be perfectly formed, even once you look beyond the terrible graphics, but a lot more thought and cleverness has gone into Vampire Survivors than it first appears. The urge to have just one more go remains strong even when you’re making runs that last 30 minutes at a time. That can be a pleasure or a curse, depending on what you were actually meant to be doing at the time, but once Vampire Survivors gets its teeth into you there’s no escape.
Vampire Survivors review summary
In Short: It’s ugly as hell, and initially quite slow, but Vampire Survivors is the most compelling dual-stick shooter for years, even if it doesn’t actually use dual sticks.
Pros: The weapon types and upgrade systems create a huge range of options and the huge enemy formations work on a scale that’s impressive despite the graphics. Great music and a loveable, goofy charm.
Cons: The pacing is a tad too slow for a game that relies so much on repetition, even once you start to unlock shortcuts. No real enemy AI.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and iOS
Release Date: 20th October 2022
Age Rating: 12
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