How Top-Tier Time-Waster Vampire Survivors Became An Unlikely Smash Hit

A screenshot or short video of indie hit Vampire Survivors doesn’t exactly make the strongest impression. Its throwback aesthetics aren’t without their charm, sure, but you might confuse it for a Castlevania fangame–its cracking whips, spinning bibles, and fluttering bats arguably fall just on the good side of copyright infringement. However, once you actually sit down and play a few minutes of this bullet hell survival game, you’ll have a hard time getting back to your busy workday.

When that happens to you, you’ll be in happy company. You can often find Vampire Survivors in Steam’s best-sellers list, alongside heavy hitters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Apex Legends.

Vampire Survivors belongs to a certain class of indie game that’s fallen by the wayside in recent years: the time-waster. Best represented by idlers like Cookie Clicker or gambling-inspired titles like Peggle, Vampire Survivors is not a deep, taxing experience that requires hours at a time. Instead, it’s designed for short play sessions of 30 minutes or so, enough to fit into your lunch break, or perhaps an empty hour in your weekend schedule.

Screens filled with enemies are a common occurrence in Vampire Survivors.

Vampire Survivors is best-described as a wave-based survival game with heavy bullet-hell elements. You collect a number of suspiciously familiar weapons such as whips, holy water, and axes as you carve your way through the ever-escalating hordes of undead. The real twist is that you don’t have any direct control over your many tools of the trade–they fire off at predetermined intervals. Weak zombies and skeletons eventually give way to plant monsters and tough sharkmen. In the first level, entire flocks of homing bats cut into the shambling hordes to stop you in your tracks–eventually, the evil flowers will form a small circle to lock you in, which makes things a bit hairier.

A large part of Vampire Survivors’ success can be attributed to its developers’ approach to Early Access. The devs have managed to add a steady drip-feed of new characters, weapons, and modes to the game over the past few months, transforming what was already a great experience to a dark horse Game of the Year contender. What started as a glorified browser game with a handful of weapons and a single level has turned into a content-rich indie classic with an “overwhelmingly positive” review rating on Steam. According to Steam 250, it’s the fifth-most reviewed game on Steam for the entirety of 2022, as well as the overall top-rated game of the year.

The slow build of content has brought a rare level of success, too. According to SteamDB, Vampire Survivor’s concurrent player counts are often in the tens of thousands, which is comparable to high-profile games like God of War and Elden Ring. It also regularly tops the Steam Deck charts, with many fans referring to it as one of the best reasons to own Valve’s new machine. The game isn’t just an indie smash–it’s arguably the sleeper hit of the year.

While it might seem far-fetched to compare an epoch-defining mega RPG like Elden Ring to a lunch-break game like Vampire Survivors, the bottom line is that Vampire Survivors stands out just as much in its genre as Elden Ring does. And besides, many people have put a similar amount of hours into both games over the past twelve months, including me.

Varied level layouts can constrain your tactics to a surprising extent.
Varied level layouts can constrain your tactics to a surprising extent.

Vampire Survivor’s low investment and top-down view are reminiscent of the indies that you’d find in the early days of Xbox Live Arcade on the 360. Wave-based survival games like Zombie Square 2 and I Made A Game With Zombies In It dominated that era of indies with their simple gameplay and Newgrounds-esque appeal. But while Vampire Survivors might look easy enough to understand on the surface, it’s actually a surprisingly complex experience–and a very well-crafted one, too.

Like any good roguelite, the game includes quite a few static buffs you can buy with the treasure you collect during your runs, as well as a number of optional difficulty modifiers. Vampire Survivors does an excellent job of layering on rewards and complications to keep you playing throughout your time with the game, from the one-hour mark to the 25-hour mark. Its approachable first few hours belie a ridiculous amount of extra content to explore. Do well enough in the default stages, and you’ll unlock the next one, which comes with a completely different layout, enemies to fight, and unique items to collect.

Completing certain objectives will unlock new weapons to experiment with, as well as characters with built-in abilities that call for more specific playstyles. Put enough hours into the game, and you’ll even start getting a feel for your preferred build. Speaking for myself, up-close weapons seem to be particularly effective in wiping out large numbers of enemies for those crucial early levels, but you’ll definitely want to build substantial area-of-effect damage using weapons like the Holy Water or Bible for the brutal late-game. Generally, it’s better to level up one weapon as far as you can rather than spreading your resources out, but there’s a time and place for every strategy.

Once you’re strong enough to consistently survive to the “end” of the game’s early levels, you’ll unlock wilder and more challenging versions of those familiar stages. Outright challenge modes and endless modes await you past that, and you’ll eventually unlock universal modifiers that drastically change your approach to the game, from your overall build to your character choice.

None of this is anything unique or truly innovative for the roguelite space, of course. However, it’s Vampire Survivors’ immaculate core gameplay that keeps you coming back. The level of sheer chaotic spectacle that the game consistently brings is unlike anything I’ve ever played, but it’s so approachable that anyone can enjoy it. No game has given me a case of “one more run” syndrome this badly since my first feverish days of The Binding of Isaac. It’s the perfect Steam Deck game. If you’re a Game Pass subscriber who hasn’t taken the plunge yet, you owe it to yourself to try this game. And if you aren’t, you should go on Steam and buy it for $5. Either way, you’re certainly getting your money’s worth.

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors.
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