A few weeks ago, us here iOS gamers got one of the best gifts 2022 could offer. Inevitably, people will fall into one of two camps: those who appreciate this most generous gift of free roguelike slaughter, and the rest, who are yet to be sucked into hours of thumb-aching, toilet seat-warming undead action.
That gift is Vampire Survivors, a rogue-lite “time-survival” game from Poncle (aka. developer Luca Galante), and it’s entirely free on the App Store. Not at no additional cost to an Apple Arcade subscription, I mean free free. That’s an excellent deal for a decent game, but this isn’t any old thumb-twiddler: not only is this one of the best iPhone games to play right now, it’s one of the best games this year on any platform.
In Vampire Survivors you kill hundreds, thousands, millions of pixel-art sprites and collect gems to level up to get stat boosts, upgrade weapons, or choose a new damage-dealing tool. So far, so-so, right? Well, here’s the twist: your weapons are unleashed automatically. That means all you have to worry about is weaving through foes that appear around you in a trickle at first (and by the end a menacing, pulsating ocean) to pick up the gems needed to level up and increase your power.
But to call this a casual or an idle game just because you don’t have to fire your weapons doesn’t do Vampire Survivors’ nuances justice. First, that means you can have multiple weapons and boosts at once — they’re accumulated very quickly on each run, with the marvellous ensuing chaos making you feel extremely powerful, without being overwhelmed with managing multiple projectiles.
Early on, most runs won’t last much more than ten minutes, so you can build your character and try out whatever variation of arsenal you fancy, safe in the knowledge you can try something completely different soon. The achievements list encourages you to do that, too, rewarding you with new gear for lasting a certain amount of time with a certain character or upgrading a particular weapon. That along with the option of spending resources gained in rounds on permanent stat boosts means you rarely feel bereft on death. You just want one more go.
Not worrying so much about weaponry means you think much more strategically about movement. Before long your screen will be full of foes, so you’ll need to weigh up whether it’s worth heading in the direction of tougher enemies, in the hope of better gems, or more brittle targets for a quicker getaway. At first, environmental obstacles will frustrate and need to be out-manoeuvred, but eventually you’ll use them to aid your escape.
Poncle also has plenty of fun manipulating the way you move. The gems you need to level up are dropped by enemies, so you may need to risk your health bar to go back to pick up your goodies, recalling the likes of Doom’s ammo pickups, or Kill Confirmed in Call of Duty. The busier a spot is with enemies, the more gems will be left, dangling a pool of twinkling, tempting loot for you to risk life and pixelated limb.
While Vampire Survivors first released in Early Access in December last year on PC, it feels most at home on mobile. Something suited to short bursts and so simple to interact with, yet still deep, is just perfect on iPhone… and even more so if you connect a gamepad — here’s how to use a PS4 or PS5 controller on iPhone, by the way. Playing just with the touchscreen feels inherently less precise, and if I wanted to swap thumbs to rest one, or not obscure a certain part of the screen, my playable character would often stop dead - not ideal in a game where agile movement is the most important thing. It’s also worth mentioning you can play in portrait or landscape, and I found the latter more comfortable, with my hands getting in the way less.
The only other major difference is that it’s free on iOS, but it only costs a few dollars on PC or Xbox. That means there are ads, but they’re entirely optional — you can watch a couple to boost your gold haul at the end of a run, but also when you die to revive yourself with a portion of health. This does cheapen the rather expensive (in terms of in-game currency) permanent upgrade, Revival, but at no point do you have to subject yourself to them.
We also don’t have access to Legacy of the Moonspell on iOS just yet, the game’s first DLC which launched close to its mobile release. It came with eight new characters, 13 new weapons, and a new map, so hopefully we get to see that soon after burning through the vanilla maps and characters over the holidays.
So for these reasons and more, you have a duty this holiday: get your friends and family on Vampire Survivors. I can see why the retro art style, vampirism, and roguelike elements may put some off — they did me, at first — but rarely have I encountered a game so accessible, available, and downright excellent. Get them past the first hurdle and they’ll be hooked, freeing you up for, well, more Vampire Survivors. You could say they’re going to be consumed by it.
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Harry Shepherd is an Audience Development Manager at Future Publishing for iMore, and previously was Guides Editor for PC Gamer. He is a writer and editor with more than two years experience specialising in entertainment, gaming, SEO and guides, and has fought more boss fights than most people have had hot dinners.