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game review: vampire survivors


"not a roguelike, just an amusement park ride."

ten years ago i started watching the youtube videos of a let's player (remember when we called them "let's plays?") named northernlion. he was most well known at that time as an avid player of a game called the binding of isaac. at that time, words like "roguelike" and "procedural generation" were still relatively unknown. they'd been coming into vogue in some circles via the rise of minecraft, as well as more niche games like dwarf fortress and the original verison of spelunky. but the binding of isaac perfected a specific formula: randomly generated levels and permanent death like the old-school roguelikes, but with unlockables that persist across runs so you were constantly making a little bit of progress.

the term we seem to have settled on for these games is "roguelike." this perturbed some people. "roguelike" as a term has historically had a fairly narrow definition, meaing games that were like rogue they had turn-based, grid-base combat, ascii graphics, and extremely complex internal simulations. they weren't just games where if you died it was game over.

in the past, i have been on the side of ridiculing these people. i have historically subscribed to a fairly wittgensteinian view of language: use dictates meaning. if what people mean when they say "roguelike" is "games like the binding of isaac, enter the gungeon, dead cells, and hades," then that's what it means. we can create a retronym like "traditional roguelike" or "ascii roguelike."

nowadays i think differently. i think that just because something is natural doesn't make it good, and just because something is inevitable doesn't mean we shouldn't fight it. i think that most things that are supposed as inevitable actually aren't. descriptivism is for linguists, and i am not a linguist. i remember the exact moment that i changed my mind on this. it was upon hearing the first reasonable argument from someone who defended a narrower definition of the term "roguelike." i stated my "procgen and permadeath" definition of the term, and they said simply that it did not capture what made roguelikes special to them. none of the so-called roguelikes released in the wake of the binding of isaac contained what they enjoyed about roguelikes.

another issue is historical: using "roguelike" to describe a game like, say, vampire survivors (the ostensible topic of this review), is not the most useful way to understand its geneaology. vampire survivors is deeply indebted to its "roguelite" predecessors, particularly the binding of isaac and enter the gungeon, but it is not in any way meaningfully related to their predecessors, roguelikes such as nethack and angband.

the immediate predecessor of vampire survivors is magic survival, an android game with a very similar premise: you are a little guy, and lots of other little guys try and kill you. you get magic powers that spawn lots of projectiles and kill lots of guys at once. magic survival itself reminds me most of the XBLIG title I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1, which is also about shooting lots of little guys.

all of these games sit firmly in the genre of "multidirectional shooter," though vampire survivors and magic survival have the notable distinction of lacking a "shoot" button, which is largely vestigial in shmups anyway. when attempting to pitch the game to people i have repeatedly used the phrase "geometry wars with thousands of skeletons." i have no doubt that if geometry wars came out today, the sick freaks pretending to be video games critics on twitter would declare it a "roguelike".

the grandaddy of all multidirectional shooters is of course asteroids, a game with random obstacle generation and permanent death. recent brain poisoning seems to have caused video games writers to forget that until fairly recently permanent death was a common feature of video games, first in arcades as a matter of practicality (with the hardware necessary to store player progress not yet extant), and then later stretching into the console age as a matter of habit and through ports of arcade games.

In 2013, four years after I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 and eight years before vampire survivors, dutch game designer jan willem nijman gave a talk at the dutch game garden entitled "the art of screenshake" about his approach to "game feel." the lesson these games have taken the most to heart from this talk is nijman's assertion that more, weaker enemies is more fun than fewer, stronger enemies.

another game that looms large over vampire survivors is nijman's 2015 game nuclear throne. nuclear throne is also a multidirectional shooter with persistent unlockable characters and a per-run leveling system which grants access to powerful upgrades for your player character. what vampire survivors doesn't share is nuclear throne's fetishization of difficulty. vampire survivors is not a difficult game. I have played just over 20 hours of the game and I have every currently implemented achievement. for comparison, i've put 160 hours into nuclear throne and haven't even unlocked every character.

this is the part where i say that I don't want this to be one of those steam "not recommended" reviews where the guy has like 600 hours in the game. vampire survivors is a very good game, and it's still in early access and will in all likelihood get even better. however, i am going to spend a significant portion of the remaining text of this review criticizing certain aspects of the game.

when discussing the game with a friend who had just purchased it and was looking for advice, i happened upon the term "fun plateau," which describes succinctly a phenomenon that i've experienced in just about every game with permadeath and persistent unlockables. vampire survivors has four types of unlockables: unlockable stages, unlockable characters, unlockable items, and unlockable powerups. the stages and characters are completely fine, fun even, though the selection of characters has not been nearly as thought out as the roster in nuclear throne. as i write this, the latest patch has introduced a new unlockable character, yatta cavallo, who is simply a better version of another character, mortaccio.

the trouble is this: when i first began playing vampire survivors, i was immediately engaged by the sheer number of skeletons on the screen. after some time, i developed a grasp of the mechanics and weapons, but still found myself unable to make progress. it felt as though it was simply impossible for me to deal enough damage to stand a chance against the later waves of enemies. i gradually got more and more frustrated with the game until i unlocked the duplicator item, and got enough coins to invest in the growth, magnet, and cooldown powerups. suddenly, the game was fun again, and remained fun until i unlocked every achievement.

this is the fun plateau. inevitably, when playing a permadeath game with persistent upgrades, your knowledge of the game systems will outpace the rate at which the game gives you upgrades, and you will be stuck behind a brick wall until you spend enough time in the gameplay mines to be allowed to have fun again. some games have multiple fun plateaus, where the game goes a very long time between substantial upgrades and all you receive is meaningless trash. the binding of isaac is absolutely loaded with them.

traditional roguelikes, and "roguelites" without persistent unlockables like spelunky, don't have fun plateaus. if you are failing to make progress, the only obstacle in your way is your understanding of the game's systems, and your ability to execute on that understanding, which are both entirely within your control. the game designer's job is then to fill the game with learning experiences, to allow a committed player to learn from each mistake. vampire survivors isn't a roguelike, it's just an amusement park ride.

it is important to note that my issue is not with the game being easy. i love that the game is easy. i have long held that permanent death does not necessarily mean the game has to be hard. a much more direct way to give people wary of permadeath a chance to fall in love with it is to simply make the game easy. something vampire survivors does leagues better than the binding of isaac is understand that people are playing to have a good time obliterating legions of skeletons with dizzying arrays of spinning projectiles. the binding of isaac over the years of expansions its received eventually crawled so far up its own ass about being "difficult" that it's hard to imagine anyone picking up the game today would enjoy it. but while vampire survivors has a low skill floor that i think is admirable, it fails to match it with a high skill ceiling. once i'd beaten a single stage there was almost nothing interesting left, unlocking all of the achievements was simply a matter of going through the motions.

finally, i want to touch on the game's graphics and sound. this game looks like absolute ass, and i love it. the game was made using an asset pack by oryx design lab and makes no attempt to hide that fact. the scaling extremely weird and blurry, the game mixes different pixel sizes with reckless abandon and stretches, squashes, and rotates sprites off the pixel grid constantly. it would drive me nuts if i didn't find it at least a little charming. it feels like a game made a decade ago or more, like something you'd find on newgrounds or a japanese nintendo DS or early iOS obscurity. in recent years indie games have become increasingly concerned with their image, and while in the past games made by one or two people could pick up huge buzz with simple graphics, nowadays "indie" teams have whole art departments dedicated to cultivating a marketable aesthetic. it is then, strangely nostalgic to see a small game made with no budget get coverage on major websites and generate such a reaction on twitter. it gives me hope that maybe we're not doomed.

vampire survivors is a game by luca galante. it is available on steam for $2.99.