Mindless grind in games is a double-edged sword. On one hand it's a flagrantly obnoxious chore, a naked tax on your time that can drag down—if not completely ruin—an experience. On the other hand, it can provide a peaceful, low-pressure reprieve that allows your mind to focus on something else, similar to toying with a stress ball during a conversation. I've waded through numerous audiobooks while harvesting Monster Hunter materials, churned through podcasts during Destiny dailies, and listened to countless video essays on countless (failed) roguelite runs. Games like World of Warcraft, Pokemon, and Diablo are excellent multitasking outlets... provided you're in the mood for microscopic progress and tedious tasks.
Enter Vampire Survivors, the perfect bite-sized, grind-focused time-waster.
The reverse-bullet-hell genre Vampire Survivors has popularized is an unmistakably weird one. At first blush one might mistake Vampire Survivors for a twin stick shooter, but (believe it or not) it has more DNA in common with Cookie Clicker than Geometry Wars. Dodging and crowd control take a backseat to damage optimization, which gets easier and easier to manipulate and attain the more you play the game. You'll be able to permanently boost your base stats, unlock new characters & weapons, and discover game-changing relics like the map & randomazzo. While the first few runs may see you struggling to survive the full thirty minutes, just stick with it and you'll be showering the screen in bullets in no time.
The key to dominating Vampire Survivors like a BDSM-loving Belmont lies in discovering its strange weapon evolutions. Each weapon has a "superior" form that can easily double your damage output—provided you find the passive item that's required to unlock the upgrade. It's here where the game can devolve into its most chaotic form, granting some truly absurd abilities you can use to decimate Death himself. It's fun trying to figure out which passives are the key to which weapons, provided you can withstand some aimless trial and error. Once you stumble upon the correct combo for the first time, expect your eyes to light up as bright as the screen.
This ties into the next Clicker-esque mechanic that's guaranteed to dig its hooks into curious players: a copious amount of strange, secret unlocks. It's the main reason why you'll return to the game night after night, long after you've grown tired of its shallow and repetitive gameplay. You're always a run or two away from a new relic, weapon, character, stage, card, or feature that'll tickle the imagination, prompting some haphazard theory crafting and experimental combinations. Plus for the completionists out there, you can nab every achievement in the game in roughly 24 hours—or destroy your sanity in an attempt to complete every stage with every character, a task I can only imagine takes at least 100 hours to achieve. But no matter your preference, there's bound to be something that'll keep you up past your bed time, just itching to squeeze in just one more run.
However, none of this turns Vampire Survivors into what I'd call a good game.
It's fun and addictive, sure! But you have to overlook a host of issues in order to maintain the excitement you once felt at the beginning of your journey—the worst of which being the aforementioned shallowness. Each run made past your exploratory phase will be downright identical, with every character, arcana, and stages prioritizing the same weapon evolutions. You can play suboptimally and go for stuff like knives, garlic, and cats, but to what end? Any run capable to carrying you to the thirty minute mark will likely require zero input past minute fifteen, whether or not you've taken some inferior weapons. Like with Cookie Clicker, once your engine starts running you may as well step away from the computer and go fix yourself a snack.
And this is where another terrible aspect rears its ugly head: boredom. Bobbing and weaving around dense enemy clusters isn't as important to Vampire Survivors as its level-up slot machine is, making the optimal strategy on every stage to wander in circles collecting XP until you can forge one of the busted evolutions. The only real roadblock is figuring out what power-ups to take in what order, a challenge that's mitigated with the game's generous reroll and banish system. Expect Brief jolts of excitement when a projectile enemy spawns in or a cluster of bats rushes by, but they're fleeting foes, barely taking up a minute of the stage's run time. Besides that, you'll fight off wave after wave of samey enemies, differentiated only by how long they each take to die. Even on Hurry mode, runs can drag intolerably on, wearing out their welcome like milk past its expiration date.
Vampire Survivors is ugly as sin, too. I don't usually find a low-res sprite-based art style to be a lazy or uninspired one, but Vampire Survivors epitomizes the worst of the aesthetic. The UI is messy potluck of different font sizes, backgrounds are dry and featureless, and the bestiary is plagued with bargain bin Castlevania knockoffs. If you turn off your brain you can be mildly amused by all the flashing lights and colorful explosions, but the game is a far cry from being a looker. The best thing you can say about it is that the visuals are serviceable, which given that early SNES titles are more pleasing to the eye than this rainbow cacophony, isn't really saying much.
In spite of all my criticism, Vampire Survivors endures thanks to one simple fact: it's cheap as hell. The (initial) asking price of $3 is low enough to be worth the risk, as you can't really feel regret over that amount—or at least no more than buying a questionable bag of potato chips. That's why it can feel kind of silly criticizing the game over its shallow systems and janky artwork—Vampire Survivors is a dopey passion project, not a premier indie title that's crafted more carefully than an ice sculpture. Vampire Survivors doesn't tug at your emotions or leave you ruminating over its themes; it's ludicrous, droll, and tickles the primate part of your brain that likes seeing a deluge of numbers go up. In the video game world, it is a questionable bag of potato chips—but one of the more delightful ones that might just become your new favorite for the next few months.