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Spotlight on: Vampire Survivors and the comeback of the auto-battler

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Perhaps comeback is the wrong term. The auto-battler never truly vanished in the sense that there’s always someone making an ‘insert genre or subtype of game here’, but certainly no auto-battler game was in vogue or at the forefront of discussion and streaming. To be honest, there isn’t really now either, I’m just aware of a few gaining some traction and want to write about them. This is some real underground stuff, I say, tongue firmly lodged in cheek. Prepare for this elite secret. It’s basically all Northern Lion’s (the streamer) fault. 

For the uninitiated, an auto-battler is a game in which your powers, spells, whatever to that effect, just happen automatically. This can result in auto-attack mechanics being used across a variety of genres and types of games. Often these games are stat based, and harken back to tabletop ventures such as Risk, where surprise, in the battle stage your enemy could have popped out a few more soldiers than you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. To me, these types of games harken back to the flash game days of Newgrounds or Gamefudge respectively, as their abundance on that scene was clear. Relatively easy and cheap to make, they recall days of having seemingly infinite free time after school. Christ knows how we managed it. 

Auto-attacks can be a component of a game’s attack system, as in RuneScape, League of Legends, Genshin Impact, and World of Warcraft, or they can be the basis for the actual game. This is the distinct difference, and many games with auto-attack mechanics are not auto-battlers by nature. Can you dig it? 

I first saw auto-attackers crop up again again as a modal way of playing Hearthstone, the free to play online card game that has a much better interface than Magic the Gathering and thus has absorbed all my card gaming attention for the last four years. Instead of manually attacking, you line up your forces and hoped to Beelzebub that your guys are bigger than theirs. It’s a nice little brain holiday from the more taxing Hearthstone decks, where you can’t just autopilot.

Vampire survivors is my current favourite. My boyfriend was rotting away watching Northern Lion streams and the man himself was playing it.

“That looks like the apex of doing nothing,” I said with a sneer yet the shiny level ups and fancy items were calling me. “It’s 2.99 or something,” he said with a haunted, hushed tone. The game had already gotten to him. 

At that price I couldn’t resit a wee go. 

Your objective is to survive horrific waves of a menagerie of spooks and crooks, gaining experience from your kills to level up. You’ll choose six unique weapons and six unique items as you progress through these waves at each level peak, each with their own effects and strengths and weaknesses. All you do is move around the map, with your weapons firing wildly. Each weapon has a different way of moving about the screen to destroy the hoards of the undead coming for your brains and intestines. Your items are a range of goodies that can produce a multitude of effects, including increased projectile speed, reduced cooldown for weapons, and duplication of projectiles. There are many combos and special secret evolutions of weapons you can discover, and your builds can be fairly different every time (unless you are me and keep choosing the King James Bible and the Garlic.) 

Most auto-battlers need a good interface, objective, style, or aesthetic to really work. At the end of the day its you just cutting about a screen killing things automatically and collecting experience. Vampire survivors has this old school feel that I as a 20-something-year-old gamer yearn for. A host of unlockables, 8 bit City, secret cheats and codes, and cool weapon effects. This game wouldn’t work without the sense of progression and lovely dopamine hit you get when upgrading your Santa Water (yes this is real) for the 7th time. 

There’s something about levelling and upgrading that is just an addictive cycle, and vampire survivors understands that better than most auto-attackers. The simplistic design yet seemingly more complex gameplay or flowchart of upgrades and evolutions for weapons gives a sense of depth to an otherwise extremely surface level affair. It has charm, and will destroy your productivity and social life.  

The solo developer of the game, Luca Galante seems utterly perplexed by the game’s success and its current 18,000 membership on the subreddit but is thankful for the reception it received. It’s a weird one. Tapping into exactly what the lizard brain desires. You have been warned as to its unnatural powers. 

Featured Image Credit: Vampire Survivors/Lucas Galante

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