In Carol J. Clover’s landmark analysis of horror — Men, Women, and Chainsaws — she notes how horror movies closely resemble folktales: ”a set of fixed tale types that generate an endless stream” of “sequels, remakes, and rip-offs.” This might sound like a diss, but for Clover, it is closer to the highest of compliments. If there is “no original, no real, or right text,” then what becomes most important is how these tales are performed. The phrase “endless stream” is particularly fitting for Vampire Survivors, the roguelike shoot 'em up game developed by Luca “Poncle” Galante.
Vampire Survivors takes horror stock monsters like bats, skeletons, and ghosts and sets them against a player-character who improves incrementally. That’s not a novel setup by any means. The monsters don’t change, but they also don’t stop coming.
Like Pac-Man and Tetris, Vampire Survivors exploits one core concept to maximum effect. Here, it’s the endless stream of enemies that keep chasing the poor player character. What did Antonion, Imelda, Pasqualina, or any other unlockable characters do to piss off the unending horde? We’ll never know.
What matters is how the monstrous enemies move: slowly for the most part, but in ever-increasing numbers. Every game starts the same, with the chosen character wielding their starter weapon to knock off a few measly bats. The player’s main focus will likely be on trying to grab blue Experience Gems which allow a character to level up. Progression opens the player up to a wide array of offensive, defensive, and passive abilities.
Gameplay takes two forms: There’s the actual dodging and weaving that takes place as a character gets overwhelmed by the various ghouls, and then the ability management that comes with leveling up. As leveling up becomes a greater and greater challenge, the choices a player makes start to define the playing experience.
A Clock Lancet ability shoots a time-freezing ray in 12 directions clockwise one at a time, for example. It doesn’t cause any damage on its own, but can be a real life-saver when hordes of enemies are swarming all exit routes. Garlic creates a damaging aura around the player which can mow down weaker enemies, but its effect can lead to a feeling of overconfidence. That ego boost unravels when stronger giant praying mantises, for example, walk right up and slash you to itty bits.
Players also collect gold coins, which can be used for power-ups outside of gameplay and new characters. Coins are sparse, boosted by bags and loot-rich treasure chests that come with killing more impressive foes. They can also be boosted by a “Greed” power-up. While the chests make for useful goals in the heat of battle, the boom-or-bust nature of coin collection is one of the more frustrating game mechanics.
If coin farming is a little slow, it’s no matter — Vampire Survivors is fun enough to stick with for hours.
The semi-randomized nature of leveling up can guarantee a different playthrough with each run: Maybe this time you want to see how far Garlic can take you, or the crowd-controlling Santa Water, or the straightforward Knives. The game lets a player develop their own style through a series of regular decisions, a process that encourages a natural feeling of curiosity.
Vampire Survivors owes a lot to the Castlevania series, which it references with whips and names, to the extent that Galante has had to deny ripping off the historic franchise. While Vampire Survivors doesn’t come anywhere close to the stunning visuals of something like Castlevania: Bloodlines, it’s not trying to match the heyday of pixel glory. Rather, like a new version of an old folktale, it uses its endless stream to create a bold new vision of a classic story.
Here, the ghouls overwhelm like a flooding river. The tide cannot be stopped, but there’s joy to be found in the revelation that if you play your Experience Gems and coins right, that tide can be controlled. Death is inevitable, but glory is forever.
Vampire Survivors is available to play on PC, Mac, Linux, and Android via Early Access.