Vampire Survivors and its many spin-offs are blowing up lately. A great example of this is “Bullet Heaven Fest” on Steam (until Nov 20). We’ll breakdown what these games are, why they are so successful, and where the genre is headed.
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What are Survivors-like games?
After winning best game of 2022, Vampire Survivors spawned hundreds of spin-offs taking inspiration from its sublimely simple and shockingly successful formula (hence the name, “Survivors-like”). Typically, these games feature randomly generated levels, enemies, and upgrades with players restarting levels after each death (aka, a “Rogue-like” or “Rogue-lite” structure). Each run in one of these games lasts at most 15-30 minutes or only a handful of seconds.
Survivors-like games stand out because they put you in the center of the action, surrounded by hordes of incoming enemies, and armed with a face-melting amount of bullet-spraying auto-attacking weapons. The players being the source of all the crazy attacks is what gives these games their other name – “Bullet Heavens”. At their peak, these games feel like you are playing a bite-size gamified version of a power-metal song which ends up being surprisingly meditative. Watch the Vampire Survivors trailer to see it in action:
Sugar Gamers’ intro to the genre: Vampire Survivors, the OG
One evening in December, 2021, on the Sugar Gamers Discord when we normally gather to playtest tabletop roleplaying games, the players showed up with something new and different. While waiting for everyone to arrive (ttRPG players, amiright), Maia Everett (solarpunk ttRPG designer and all around badass) and Crystal “Sprinkle_Theory” H. (hasty cozy game streamer and speedrun marathon volunteer) mentioned they saw a new game in the news with an in-browser demo we could check out to kill time. We each then opened up the demo and became entranced together for the next two hours, totally forgetting about the planned game session, as we played and discusses how amazingly fun this demo was.
That demo was Vampire Survivors’ in-browser demo on itch.io, which you can still open up and play instantaneously for free. We HIGHLY suggest trying it if you haven’t played it before.
The demo drops you into gameplay where you have only two choices: left or right and up or down. Your character attacks automatically, so you must position your character where you can attack the randomly generated enemies without running into them. If you survive long enough for the timer to run out (30 minutes), Death leaps out from no-where and immediately murders your character. That’s basically it – the entire game. Have fun, you’re welcome (*hits publish on this article and takes the rest of my day off*).
The joy of these bite-sized doses of meditative chaos
Complex Relationships with Enemies: As you play, you collect experience gems dropped by defeated enemies which allow you to level up and gain power-ups, which dramatically increase your attack abilities. You need those power-ups because the incoming tide of enemies surrounding you grows in number, strength, and variety every second. Each monster is a threat and potential resource, building a love-hate relationship with enemies as you play – you want enemies close but too close.
High Ceiling, Trampoline Floor: As simple as the controls are, the game has an astronomic ceiling for player skill and knowledge. Skirting around clusters of enemies (or “kiting” as the cool kids call it) feels extremely satisfying as you cleanse the battlefield and maximize your damage output. You can develop an meditative-like feeling as you glide around, mopping up monsters, growing your earth-shattering abilities, and learning more about the game as you go. With every run, you learn which ability/weapon combinations work best for your style of play and unlock more potent power-ups. The combination creates a bite-size puzzle that feels immediately approachable and endlessly scalable. Survivors-likes are like the everlasting-gobstoppers of Steam.
Short time limit, exponential potential: Another hallmark of Survivors-like games is their short time limits for runs. Levels in Vampire Survivors have a maximum time limit of 15 or 30 minutes before you die or win – either way you start the game anew with a fresh build. In that time, you ride an exponential curve of destruction in which, given enough luck and practice, you can ramp up to become an neigh-unstoppable tornado of devastation.
The exponential acceleration of power in these games allows you to try again and quickly rebuild your power whenever die. When most runs in a game last only 5-10 minutes and you have infinite combinations of abilities, how can you not try again with a new strategy?
Simple Controls: Also, since the controls are one-handed for most of these games, you can drink coffee while playing, which is a HUGE bonus.
The evolution and diversification of the Survivors-like genre: Solo Developers rejoice!
One of the most remarkable parts of the Vampire Survivors story is that the game was made by a single developer – a developer who avoids the spotlight so much he appears as a puppet rather than in person in the game’s making-of documentary (that’s right, the puppet beat out Elden Ring for Best Game of the Year). Therefore, Survivors-like games are perfect targets for solo developers and small teams. These devs can tweak the winning formula to make something achievable and fun.
Indeed, the game devs of the world love Survivors-like games. There’s even a Reddit page, r/survivorslikes, where a devoted redditor named u/xoxomonstergirl has compiled a list of over 800 survivors-like games, which she adds to almost every day. Below are a few upcoming indie standouts to check out with early access demos, which show how far the genre has expanded in only a couple years.
Free, early-access demos to check out
NO RELOADING: Survival Trials – adding another dimension to the format, this 3D shooter combines bullet-time (a’la Max Payne), wall-running, and other acrobatic, parkour-like abilities with destructible environments to create a more complex but still bite-size and delightful experience. Also, you get to play with a corgi, which is hard not to love. Give it a try for a more two-handed gameplay experience (mouse AND keyboard!) you can really sink your teeth into. Also, they are developing a “streamer mode” which lets viewers unlock ways to summon and buff in-game enemies for streamers using the chat – super innovative!
“Infinite destruction in infinite combinations! NO RELOADING: Survival Trials is a third-person rogue-lite style shooter taking inspiration from classics like Max Payne. Slay simulants, earn upgrades, and look cool while doing it!”
Noxious Weeds – a cozy mix of farming simulator and the Survivors-like format, this game adds a healthy splash of pastoral charm to your Bullet Hell. The abilities in Noxious Weeds heavily involve summoning plant friends to help you survive the incoming onslaught of enemies, which explores a different direction than the typical bullet-focused abilities in most games. Cue this demo up for a gentler, cuter experience.
“Face the corruption that poisons your harvest! Noxious Weeds is an action rogue-lite where you slay hordes of creatures with the help of cute veggies and a combination of your favorite tools. The harvest is power. Choose wisely!”
Picayune Dreams – don’t forget, we’re talking indie games pushing the envelope here so its time to get weird with Picayune Dreams. Avant-garde, trippy, experimental, mysterious, haunting, and angelic – this gem of a game drips with gorgeous style. The gameplay is frenetic while still peaceful and surprisingly intimate as you drift through space, rebuilding your little cyborg. Definitely worth a look!
“Picayune Dreams is a roguelike blend of bullet heaven horde survival, and bullet hell gameplay. Craft ridiculous and overpowered builds. Adrift across the endless void, you must fend off thousands of nightmarish and otherwordly creatures. And don’t forget. You mu [TRANSMISSION INTERRUPTED…]”
Bullet Heaven Fest – showing the range of the genre
If you are interested in these type of games, you can really explore the range of them during Bullet Heaven Fest on Steam, which is happening right now until November 20! The fest includes tons of upcoming games, demos, discounts, and developer play streams (catch a glimpse of the developers of Slime 3K: Rise of Despot streaming below). You don’t want to miss it!