We need to set out our terms. Vampire Survivors is such a recent phenomenon that a genre name for it, and the many games appearing in its wake, has yet to be agreed upon. In fact, a lot of recent clones attempt to dress things up in ambiguous terms to pretend away the comparisons, saying things like “reverse bullet hell” and “survival game with rogue-like elements,” despite the games all obviously having much more in common with twin-stick shooters.
But these are distinct from those, too, by the specific nature of firing being entirely automated. That’s the key differential here: these are games in which new abilities are stacked, each running on their own timers, firing off automatically. That’s the criteria for inclusion here, certainly. (And yes, perhaps controversially, that means I won’t be including the fantastic 20 Minutes Till Dawn.) We have to be specific, or at a certain point this becomes a piece about Robotron-likes.
So let’s help things along by nailing it down. A lot of people are referring to “horde” games which is a good start, and given “automatic” is so essential, why don’t we agree on “Automatic Horde Shooters”? That’s clever enough, because it leaves room for people to far more interestingly innovate on the form with ideas I’ve yet to see, like say a first-person Automatic Horde Shooter. Or turn-based Automatic Horde Shooter.
Another peculiarity of the genre is price. They’re all incredibly, unnecessarily cheap. VS set a weird standard by pricing itself at just three bucks, and so many others have, presumably, felt obliged to follow suit. So you can pretty much pick up everything in this list for half the price of one regular game.
So, with a hefty acknowledgement that Vampire Survivors wasn’t the first game to deliver these ingredients, and indeed you could quite reasonably trace its origins back to 1982's Robotron: 2084, let’s take a look at a selection of games to grab when you’ve finally tired of VS.
Currently in a very early form, Spellbook Demonslayers: Prologue is already showing excellent form. It’s not an enormous deviation from the Vampire Survivors format, but the tweaks it makes are interesting.
First and foremost is certainly enemy size. This is a far chunkier game, with bolder, much nicer-looking sprites. Oh, and the fact that all the characters you play as are literal spell books, floating mysteriously above the ground. Next up are the spires that appear, requiring you kill a stated number of enemies within a circle around them. Do this and you unlock a temporary bonus, which is a really neat feature.
Here it doesn’t (so far) do that annoying circle of encroaching enemies thing, but instead has larger baddies also surrounded by circles of influence. Kill them, and you get a treasure chest that gives you a random boost to one of your previously unlocked spells.
There’s only one stage available so far, although a bunch of books to unlock, and a vast array of spells and abilities. Sadly that stage is astonishingly bland, with no features to discover. However, given this is free, and the menus reveal a huge number of aspects that will be added in the full game, there’s good reason to stick this on your Wishlist and enjoy this as a demo build.
Released in just the last couple of hours, Boneraiser Minions is sure to gain the post-Vampire Survivors attention it deserves. This is a super-low res NES-like presentation on the format, where you play a little creature avoiding hordes of enemies, gathering up bones from a graveyard to conjure your own supporting team of beasties to fight on your behalf.
It’s a far smaller-scale feel that the traditional wide-open spaces of this burgeoning genre, but far zippier too, requiring a bit more emphasis on reflexes to dodge the enemies right from the start. Beyond this, it offers the very familiar constant progression, but rather pleasingly, with everything being unknown the first time you unlock it. It’s a lovely way to discover all the various creatures you can create, plucking them from “???” obscurity, then having them permanently recognized in your roster from that point on.
Then there are all the unlocks to pay for between runs, that allow you to start elaborating on the core game. For instance, there’s a dash ability that can be added early on, along with the option to cast spells, as well as start constructing more dangerous minions from your bone collections.
It features cheery chiptunes, a pleasantly purple gothic color scheme, and I’m having to force myself to stop playing it to get on with this article. Which, I reckon, is the surest sign of a successful game.
While Project Lazarus is probably the most blatant lifting of Vampire Survivors’ core elements, with few new notions of its own, it stands out for its completely different approach to graphics. Presented in 3D with you controlling one of a large number of different types of robots, it fills the screen with an improbable number of 3D enemies, without slowing down even the teeniest bit.
For me, Project Lazarus is one of the weaker post-VS games to have caught public attention. It’s not just that the game’s only really original take is that you’re playing as giant mechs, each controlling slightly differently, but more that it feels—despite its graphical accomplishments—very plain. The settings are bland, the enemies too few in type (although not in number), and the sense of progression far too slow. And yet, despite all this, it still achieves that “one more go!” factor that’s so important for the genre.
This certainly hasn’t held Project Lazarus back in terms of popularity. The Early Access game has a “Very Positive” rating on Steam, and that’s with still a year to go on its development. The good news is there’s a plan to introduce a bunch of other game modes, that should give it more variety.
If you picked up Bardbarian today, you might be tempted to think of it as an ingenious crossover between Vampire Survivors and Plants Vs Zombies. You have your main character, who by spending a resource of musical notes, can surround himself with three other characters—to start with: archers, brawlers and mages—who fire off abilities on timers. You then have enemies that attack from the far right of an arena, attempting to destroy a town’s crystal on the far left.
So while you’re not in lanes, you have to prevent enemies from reaching the left of the screen, while also dodging their attacks, and all the time spending resources on boosting your gang’s attacks and recruiting new teammates should others fall. Then, gold gathered in each attempt can be spent to improve your units, the town’s defenses, and your hero’s core abilities.
Except, Bardbarian came out in 2014. Just seven years before Vampire Survivors. It’s extraordinary that such a splendid, solid game should have faded into obscurity, not least when it put in place almost all the ingredients for 2022's format phenomenon.
It’s interesting to note that, if anything, Bardbarian has slightly too much going on. It’s Vampire Survivors’ stripped down approach that, I suspect, is so vital to its enormous success. (Although it would be remiss not to mention the Android’s Magic Survival at this point, given it came out before, and VS has so much in common with it.) But if you’re interested in a game that genuinely feels like an evolution of the concept, despite releasing so many years before, this is well worth grabbing.
Now here’s a far more involved twist on the Vampire Survivors format. While using the core concept of automatically fired attacks in top-down arenas with hordes of enemies, this grabs a giant handful of Slay The Spire in terms of shorter levels, progressed through on forking paths, and then makes it a team game with a clutch of Bardbarian!
You have a King, who must be protected, so you hire other characters to surround him on four sides, each with their own timed attacks. Each level, you earn coins, which can be used to hire new crew members or buy them bonus items to enhance their abilities. Trashing current members to buy new ones brings other bonuses, while playing with particular builds will unlock challenges that in turn add new elements.
As you go through your path of levels, there are little scenarios where your choice determines an extra ability or tool you might gain, and treasure chests to open with equipment and coins. You then attempt, Slay The Spire-style, to reach the final boss of a run, with each failure hopefully unlocking new stuff for the next attempt.
There’s a lot to this, but it all slots together pretty intuitively, and for an Early Access game, it already feels incredibly complete and solid.
7 / 9
Deathstate: Abyssal Edition
Deathstate: Abyssal Edition
Here’s another game that precedes Vampire Survivors by a long while, in this case six years. Deathstate fits right in with the crowd, offering a brightly colored, chunky pixel rendition of the concept, where you auto-fire your way through large, enormously challenging levels, with an ever-growing cast of characters and abilities.
It feels a lot more like a traditional bullet hell arcade game in some ways, with flavors of Binding Of Isaac, not least with the detailed locations full of obstacles and items. But everything is in place to make this a VS alternative: you automatically fire whichever weapon you’re holding when enemies are in sight—it even aims for you—while gathering dropped gold bars to buy improvements, and collecting certain achievements unlocks new characters to play with and new items for the next run. The only significant difference is the paucity of drops.
It’s fascinating to rediscover these games from the previous decade, in the light of this year’s excitement, and realize it was pretty much all there already. The only catch here is that this precedes the bizarre-o cheapness, costing you an enormous ten whole dollars.
8 / 9
Spirit Hunters: Infinite Horde
Spirit Hunters: Infinite Horde
When I started writing this, I wasn’t expecting to find a game I liked more than Vampire Survivors. So many of these are derivative in one sense, and given the ongoing development of most games in this list, VS just has a head-start. It’s iterative releases give it the edge as everyone else plays catch-up. Well, everyone except—in my opinion—Spirit Hunters.
First of all, it’s just graphically gorgeous. Really crisp, clear cartoon art, superbly presented in both its complicated menus and its super-clear fields of battle. But much more importantly, it feels a lot more involved to play, as if this is an evolutionary step for our Automatic Horde Shooters, nudging toward something a bit more RPG.
The core game is familiar. You pick one of your unlocked heroes, then they auto-fire your selected range of attacks (up to four, from an ever-widening pool), which you constantly level up from gathered drops. Just finding a combination of attacks that best works for you is compelling enough, but on top of that you have a bunch of other drops to harvest for both in-battle improvements, and extra-battle unlocks.
There are gold coins, which can be used in spawning tent shops, to pick up some extra health, other forms of currency, or even pets (once unlocked) to use in the battlefield. Then there are the purple shards and grey runes, each used to unlock new abilities, ability improvements, player-characters, maps, bonuses and so on, in an incredibly elaborate web of skills. It adds an element of grind, but in the good way, as you might set off on a run focused not on completing the 15 minute level (and thus fighting its final boss), but instead to focus on gathering the shards. Perhaps there’s a new skill you have your eye on, or an unlock that will open a whole network of other opportunities.
This has me absolutely hooked, even more so than VS. It feels more complete and more involved, with more interesting maps to explore and a greater sense of min-maxing interest. And it’s not even done! There’s still at least six months more development to put into this, despite it feeling release-ready to me right now.
There we are. Seven alternatives to Vampire Survivors, some maybe (whisper it) even better. But you must have your own suggestions, both for games released in its wake and those that preceded it with so many of the same ideas. Please do drop suggestions in the comments below.