The concept behind Bargain Bits, of course, is to check out really cheap games, and find bargains for your bits. Vampire Survivors is an extremely budget-priced roguelite-type game (just £2.09) where you wander around and biff monsters – so how well does it manage to deliver, both for the price and in the abstract? One thing about buying games that fall within the purview of my bargain hunting is that you usually don’t need to worry about the time to cash ratio – for just a few quid, I’m happy enough to sacrifice this angle in favour of a shorter, more unique experience, or maybe one with an outstanding aesthetic flourish, like with Mysteries Under Lake Ophelia. Vampire Survivors represents the other side of the bargain-diving coin – it aims to nail a wee gameplay niche and offer a lot of replayability.
Breaking the armies of the night (until you die)
And that niche is mowing down comically-sized hordes of foes, selecting items and doing one more run, maximising the synergies between characters, weapons and accessories for thirty minutes at a time (and then doing it again after you get whacked by the Grim Reaper-like chap named in-game as Red Death). I think there’s something compelling about the short-form ‘rounds’ of Vampire Survivors, which play out in a way that doesn’t feel too much like abject failure when you don’t make it. It’s a very stripped-back interpretation of the roguelite genre mechanically, simplifying the formula back to item-gathering and power scaling (more on this later). It pays homage to Castlevania all over the place (to put it lightly) but injects a unique sense of low production value charm.
Vampire Survivors isn’t really too much to look at, on first impressions. The game’s first stage is quite plain, there’s very little in the way of animation and the sprites are a bit basic. This gives the game a sort of authentic lo-fi charm, though. So many indie games strive for a carefully curated low-res aesthetic (not knocking, they’re frequently gorgeous), but there’s a unique attraction to the unpolished nature of Vampire Survivors’ visuals. The music tracks vary depending on the stage, but they work well enough, though they didn’t blow me away. They can get a bit repetitive, much like the infinitely-scrolling stages, but you’ll stop paying attention soon enough amidst the enormous quantities of foes to bash.
Item choices are king in Vampire Survivors
Enough about how much it costs and how it looks, anyway – how does it play? Vampire Survivors is the sort of roguelite that’s almost totally focused on your item selection and combinations. You combine the effects of weapon and accessory slots, acquired on a level-up, to increase your damage and acquire more levels. All attacks run automatically, with none of them requiring any aiming; all you do is move the character, collecting dropped experience points and outmaneuvering hordes of enemies. Some items require more positioning (whip, knife) than others, which can be essentially location agnostic, blasting regardless of distance (lightning ring). A particular highlight are the game’s chests; when you defeat a boss enemy, they drop a chest, which plays a little tune and awards gold and item(s). It’s hard to overstate just how effective this slot-machine-esque mechanic is at building anticipation. You can skip this wee animation, but I can’t imagine you’d want to unless you were a really dedicated player who just wanted to keep the gameplay in motion at all costs (you monster).
If I were to level criticism at Vampire Survivors, I think it would be that the game can tend a little passive. With no direct ‘attacks’, you sort of wander around and let your items do their thing, juking enemies in the process. It’s a deliberately stripped-back experience, compared to the high-octane, active gameplay you can find in other roguelike/lite games these days, like the excellent Enter the Gungeon. While I’d assume that all items are viable in the hands of a capable player, there are some that are clearly much better than others, constituting almost must-picks to survive the game’s half-hour timer. After a few hours, I think you’ll safely come to the conclusion that it’s a good idea to always take the King Bible, or that the Magic and Flame Wands have excellent utility. Some items are made more powerful due to their paired accessory, allowing for a powerful upgrade – others languish a bit as the accessory they’re attached to is a bit naff. Vampire Survivors is a game where the old adage about the best defence being a good offence is very directly true, and so anything attached to a defensive item suffers.
Unlocks and secrets all around
It doesn’t help that some of these best-in-class weapons can end up making the game so passive as to be essentially stationary – though there’s definitely something to be said for the dopamine rush of seeing enemies break in waves on your spinning death-shield, after a few times it can get a little old. There’s a pretty distinct tier of power between the unlockable characters, too (Mortaccio is my favourite, both because he’s a cool skeleton dude and because his passive is ridiculously good). There’s a satisfying array of progression mechanics, including your standard permanent upgrades as well as a smattering of unlockable secret stages, characters, items and even entire mechanics, like the Merchant. Vampire Survivors has shown a commitment to an extended update life that definitely belies its low price. You could argue that its scheme of secrets and unlocks is the typical method that roguelites use to wring extra playtime from limited content, but I think it’s well-paced here and there’s a fairly clear progression in the ‘unlocks’ list as well as a plethora of information provided by fans.
Worth your money and your time
Even though it only cost two pounds and nine pence and I’ve long since extracted the sort of value I could expect for that sort of princely sum, I’ll continue to dip back into Vampire Survivors every so often. It’s got an intoxicating mixture of high-speed action, roguelite item-picking synergising and brain-chemical-inciting fun spikes, and only seems to become more varied and enjoyable with each update. On some level it’s hard not to feel like Vampire Survivors is brain poison, as the bright lights and big numbers really light up the primal parts of your gaming consciousness, but there’s enough strategising to keep your mental processes awake, even as you begin to ask how much one more run could hurt at midnight in a chest-addled stupor. While the lack of build variety can be somewhat of a bummer, plenty of new items have arrived over the last few months and probably will continue to do so leading up to the game’s release. Vampire Survivors gets a big Bargain Bits thumbs up, with such a low price making it worth a punt for those who habitually play this sort of game as well as those that don’t.
Vampire Survivors has a purely aesthetic relationship to Castlevania, but you know what doesn’t? Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth, which is about as close as you can get to a Castlevania game without actually playing one. If you’re in the mood for vampires, why not check out Nevi’s review of Vampyr.