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Vampire Survivors (again) | Games of the Year 2022

Brendan Sinclair copied Marie Dealessandri's homework so now you have a second write-up of why Vampire Survivors is Game of the Year

I've been low-key worrying about this Game of the Year write-up for months, because I didn't really know what it was going to be about.

I quite liked Elden Ring, but I didn't get terribly far into it and didn't have much of anything interesting or new to say about it. It's a From Software Souls game, and the open-world is a great match for From's punishing style of design and its myriad reminders that you aren't ready for this boss or that part of the world yet.

Much like last year, I spent most of my gaming time this year immersed in retro games. I considered making Skies of Arcadia on the Dreamcast my Game of the Year pick, mostly for how the Logitech G Cloud and emulation have allowed me to enjoy the game in ways I couldn't on the original hardware: in handheld form, with save states, fast-forwarding through the way-too-many random battles.

But the takeaway would just have been about the power of gaming that fits the game-shaped hole in your life as opposed to traditional console or PC gaming that requires an audience to meet games on their own terms. And I already talked about that in a column just a couple months ago.

But on December 8, I received a press release letting me know that the cult hit Vampire Survivors had just been released on mobile. I decided to give it a try. By December 10, I had my Game of the Year pick settled.

(Marie already talked about Vampire Survivors in her own Game of the Year write-up, so if you're getting déjà vu here, that might be why.)

A dog farting flower bouquets and throwing knives fends off monsters in Vampire Survivors
I thought this dog was farting flowers until I read it was supposed to be an Okami homage.

One of the things I like most about Vampire Survivors is how much it reminded me at first of the feeling I got playing Geometry Wars on the Xbox 360.

I camped out overnight for an Xbox 360 at launch, and for the first four months I had it, Geometry Wars was essentially the only game I played on it. But I played it constantly, and that $5 downloadable game more than justified the hardware purchase in my mind.

Geometry Wars is a twin-stick shooter with a longer learning curve than any I'd played before. With one exception, every enemy in the game moves based on the player's actions, whether they lazily loop along in the general direction of the player or fly straight at them but scramble out of the way of approaching fire. Over time, the game becomes as much about herding enemies together and corralling them where you need them as it is about shooting and dodging them.

In the early going, Vampire Survivors re-created that feeling for me. While the enemy attack patterns are far simpler in Vampire Survivors (most basically just shamble towards the player on as straight a path as they can manage), the need to manage their movements is similar. When you wind up surrounded by a tightening circle of enemies too tough for you to blast a path through, you have to navigate within that circle to try and thin out one section of the encroaching mob enough that you can pierce through, taking some damage but breaking out into more open space for a moment.

But where Geometry Wars is the same game every time you play it, Vampire Survivors is a rogue-lite that changes over time. Within each game, there's a random element to the power-ups you have to choose from as they level up. The money you earn on each run can go to purchase permanent upgrades. Fulfilling a series of tasks will unlock new characters, weapons, and levels.

Over time, this fundamentally changes what's important in the game, in a way that reminded me of another game I very much enjoyed, Rogue Legacy. I played through that Metroidvania rogue-lite when it came out on the Vita, and found it to be a bit unforgiving at first glance. But the wealth of upgrades to improve your health, magic damage, attack, and other stats soon makes once-difficult tasks almost trivial, and any setback experienced is understood to be temporary. A few more runs, a few more upgrades, and the game will almost certainly yield to the player.

On the one hand, these sorts of persistence-rewarding mechanisms are essentially engineering a positive outcome for players so they don't necessarily need to get any better to feel the joy of triumph, a bit like the developer giving you a condescending pat on the head. On the other hand, I'm not playing games because the real world lacks interaction with punishing systems design, so yeah, go ahead and give me a cookie and tell me what a big, strong boy I am.

A Vampire Survivors player stands still, a horde of enemies being kept at bay by area of effect weapons that continually damage them as they approach
Moving is for beginners.

The Vampire Survivors equivalent of that comes when you can overpower the moment-to-moment gameplay, where early level enemies are no threat because you'll automatically regenerate whatever damage they do in no time flat. At that point, it's not about taking any weapon made available to you so you can survive the next minute; it's about collecting the right assortment of weapons to unlock super-powerful evolved weapons in preparation for whatever the game throws at you as you close in on the 30-minute limit that counts as completing a level.

And when you have a maxed-out character with the right combination of powers, you can stop running around so much and just stand still and watch as wave after wave of monsters feed themselves into the wood chipper that is your hilariously effective arsenal of auto-firing god-killers. You don't need to worry about herding enemies at that point. New levels and a "curse" mechanic that boosts enemy abilities can still keep things challenging at that point, but it's an optional way to play.

While I've still got plenty of unchecked boxes on the Vampire Survivors task list, I find myself playing less to recreate the Geometry Wars thrill of weaving through a closing gap between enemies at the last second and more to discover just what else is in here, and how far the progression and unlocks go before the game has shown me everything it has to offer.

And by the time I'm done with that, the DLC pack will probably be out for mobile, and I can probably save myself all that low-key worrying I did in 2020 and just have Vampire Survivor as my go-to pick for 2023 Game of the Year.

A Vampire Survivors game over screen. The playfield is covered with enemies showing damage indicators above their heads
Maybe just one more run...

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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