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Antonio slashes dozens of enemies in Vampire Survivors with a whip Image: poncle

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Vampire Survivors might one day stand alongside Hades and the roguelike greats

An early access reverse-bullet hell

The thrill of a bullet hell-type shooter is the last-minute escape — the act of careening through enemy hordes, a hair’s breadth away from disaster. Vampire Survivors takes that joy and fuses it with the intoxicating power creep of roguelikes such as Hades, Returnal, or Dead Cells.

The result is chocolate and peanut butter: A deliciously perfect pairing that seems all but self-evident once you’ve tried it, but also the sort of treat that’s possible to fill up on fast.

The story of Vampire Survivors is that there is no story. You’re … well, you’re not a vampire. Actually, I don’t know that there are any vampires here at all. There are lots of bats. There’s also a generous number of mummies. But none of this matters.

The point is that beasts, with increasing number and ferocity, are coming to devour your 8-bit weakling who, if they’re smart, will immediately run away. What begins as a few errant, shambling skeletons quickly turns into an undead Hard Day’s Night, with hundreds of creatures following your every zig and zag across the infinitely expanding map.

Imelda fires a lance at enemies in Vampire Survivors Image: poncle

You’ll fend off the legions of foes with an impressive assortment of weaponry, and it’s this variety that forms Vampire Survivors’ core appeal. Your first of many unlockable characters begins with a whip that lashes out to one side at set intervals. As you kill more enemies and gain more experience, you’ll layer on new powers: holy water that creates monster-killing puddles, deadly bibles that spin around your character, and — my personal favorite — garlic that hurts any enemies that get too close. You’ll also pick up augments that increase the frequency, range, and damage of your powers, as well as your gold intake and overall resiliency.

The catch is that you’re not actually activating any of these powers — they’re on a timer and they’re always firing passively. Though you may begin your run as a squishy, whip swinging idiot, you can become a knife-throwing, fireball-barfing, well-armored demon only 10 minutes later. And you’re inflicting all this mayhem without a single button press.

If you’re having trouble imagining how this all plays out, it could best be compared to a tower defense game — complete with the satisfying layering and power iteration that genre implies — except, in this case, you’re all of the towers. And you’re far more mobile than any towers I’ve personally encountered.

As with many roguelikes, the meta challenge of Vampire Survivors is to find combinations of weapons and upgrades that click with you personally, and can help you survive until the end. I, for instance, prefer a lot of close-range attacks so I can throw myself directly into the hordes and lap up all the delicious experience their corpses leave behind.

Possible permanent upgrades in Vampire Survivors Image: poncle

When you finally are brought down (or you manage to survive for 30 minutes, marking one complete run) the gold you’ve collected can be used for permanent enhancements that’ll make the next run that much easier.

After my first, second … seventh run in Vampire Survivors, I was done in, compulsively beginning my next attempt after barely enough time to spend my precious gold. I wasn’t even frustrated to die, because I was so excited to see what the next run would bring.

But after eight or so hours, I found that “gotta play again” urge had begun to ebb.

Pacing is one issue that’s apparent pretty quickly. Once you’ve battled nightmarish, screen-filling swarms in the endgame, the opening minutes of each run, with just a handful of enemies on-screen at a time, can feel pretty sluggish. The difficulty ramps up quickly enough that this wasn’t much of a deterrent though.

There’s a sweet spot in the middle of each run where you’re powerful, but only just powerful enough to barely survive each new wave. In the final third of each run, though, things start to feel perplexingly staid.

There’s a cap for upgrading all your weapons and abilities and once you’ve gotten them all, each new experience level yields only a spare few coins or a bit of healing. That roguelike joy of increasing your power evaporates. Enemies at that stage have also become so numerous that it’s impossible to do those bullet-hell style last minute escapes. You basically have to strap in and hope that the combination of powers and abilities you’ve curated is enough to get you through to the end.

Enemies swarm the player character in Vampire Survivors Image: poncle

There’s still some novelty once you are consistently completing your runs. There’s a “Hyper” mode that offers additional coins if you’re willing to take on faster enemies (another way to accelerate through the early slump). There are also ways of evolving each of your weapons if you pair them with certain upgrades and manage to survive long enough. But while these evolutions are cool, they’re not enough to alleviate the tension deficit in the late game.

Since you don’t control attacks, the real meat of Vampire Survivors is in the meta. It’s in picking just the right combination of powers and augmentations to forge a one-person monsterpocalypse. Once you run out of decisions to make, you start to feel a little vestigial to the experience.

Vampire Survivors is still in early access, of course, so one hopes that more depth and variety are on the way. The important stuff, though — that core blend of roguelike and bullet hell shoot-em-up — is already beyond solid. With a bit more meat on the bone, Vampire Survivors could be ready to take its place among Dead Cells, Hades and the other greats that preceded it.