I counted at least ten in the next group, closing in and circling like lions. The whip returned, soaked from passing quick judgment and leaving a satisfying hiss in its trail. It launched again and again, infinite lashings, arms moving so fast in this forever rhythm, doing all they could to survive for five more minutes.
The whole scene was a symphony of whooshes, snaps and cracks. Just three more minutes.
Another crowd. Bats, skeletons, slimes and mixed pairings of flesh and appendages, close enough to smell the decay. But the gems were closer, crimson and indigo, their gleam offering power and hope. Each step forward drew them in, each hitting the skin like warm pelts of air, adrenaline firing like sparks.
The whip surged with power, lighting the surround in a deep red, the undead only appreciating its ruby glow for the mere moments prior to it stealing their sight forever.
And then I felt it, even from far away; the temperature dove down to an indescribable cold. Hands slowing, arms not able to keep up, body shutting down. And I heard his laughter as he floated in, smiling widely, his red cloak flowing in the frosty draft. The scythe was starving and at the ready.
I grinned on his approach, appreciating the last few moments. Thirty minutes had passed. Victory and death were one in the same.
Luca Galante developed and published Vampire Survivors and gifted it to the world in March 2021. Since then, we’ve seen the birth of a new sub-genre of roguelites, and it has been given so many names: Arena Survival, Roguelite Survival, Auto-Shooter Survival, Reverse Bullet Hell, Horde Survival, and, my current favorite, the Bullet Heaven.
The games in this bucket typically involve the player dodging enemies and projectiles while grabbing experience-boosting gems and building power along the way in an attempt to survive for a requisite period of time. But how could something so simple be so addictive, so attractive? VG Insights reports that, as of this writing, Vampire Survivors has sold 6 million units with an average play time of 33.8 hours.
How could that be?
As a long-time Bullet Heaven addict, I’m going to try and explain what I love so much about these games and then discuss some of the more innovative entries that I’ve enjoyed over the last several months.
“My name is Goat and I’m an ASSaholic.”
- Containing or relating to Auto-Shooter Survival games.
“ASS games are one of his favorite types of video games.”
When we climb a mountain, are we to enjoy the grueling journey to the top? Or is it about reaching the apex and the rush of achievement that courses across our brains in that final moment? Can it be both?
And what if that mountain was more accessible? What if the mountain had an escalator all the way to the top, and the escalator ride was filled with moments that mattered—moments that made you feel triumphant? Moments that had you feeling like YOU were down on the mat pulling off single-handed pushups with Stallone in one of the greatest training montages of all time?
Let’s take a step back for a moment and have a check in… How do you feel at the end of your work day? Have you been talked at all day? Have you talked at others all day? Have you performed physical labor all day? How do you feel after ingesting 97 articles about ChatGPT, image generation, schools considering the use of AI to teach classes and the general thoughts you have throughout the day about the unstoppable marching of time that is slowly guiding us towards an inevitabl—well, you get it, right?
And sometimes we want something that doesn’t have a long, more complex onboarding experience with 7 different systems that have 13 sub-systems—all with their own intricacies that may or may not play off of each other, firing off all kinds of emotions in our “Must Min/Max Everything” lizard brains. Sometimes we’re seeking something that we can just get into and play immediately and come away feeling some sense of accomplishment.
Let’s get back on that very inviting escalator ride now.
The simple formula is what makes it so successful: dodge enemies, melt their faces off, grab experience gems, get powerful, melt even more faces off, feel good, repeat. We are tasked with starting out at level zero, all the way at the bottom of the escalator, and surviving the ride to the apex, gaining more and more superhuman powers along the way. And it just works.
Often times there is no real story—you won’t have 17 NPCs, each with their own multi-layered, decision-tree dialogues to read through and digest. The controls usually involve your left stick and one other button to perform dashes. And for us keyboard players, that means one hand working WASD while the other works a cup of coffee. There’s very little to tax the brain, and, sometimes, this is what we’re after, especially if you’re looking to game and you want something that’s “light.”
One Steam group called Bullet Heaven Fandom has a curated list of 370 games falling into this genre. Frankly, that’s too many, and some of them are too similar to Vampire Survivors for my taste. I’m going to list off a few of my favorites—Bullet Heavens that I think brought some innovation to the space.
- Halls of Torment
Do you enjoy Diablo? It’s true that we don’t know each other, but given the size of the Diablo fanbase, I’d take a blind bet on you being a Diablo fan. Halls of Torment is going to give you the Diablo vibes with all the hot experience gem collection that will help your Swordsman, Archer, and Cleric rise to the occasion. Here’s some gameplay footage:
- Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor
Maybe you want some of the mining adventure of Deep Rock, but in bullet heaven form. This game will release sometime in 2023, and I recently played the private beta and logged 30 hours in a matter of days. It’s going to be incredible. Rock and stone! Gameplay footage:
- Monsters ‘Til Midnight
Bullet heaven with a buddy? Yep. Some of these bullet heavens have done a great job of incorporating multiplayer action (see recent Vampire Survivors coop announcement), and Monsters ‘Til Midnight is an epic romp with a friend. Here’s some gameplay footage:
- God of Weapons
It’s as though someone combined the uniqueness of Backpack Hero, with its interesting inventory management layer, with a Bullet Heaven, and it works so well. Seriously, this one packs a bit of a challenge, but it’s so much fun. Gameplay footage:
- Whisker Squadron: Survival
Flying cats! Do you miss Star Fox? Are you desperate for more barrel roles? Are you ME?!?
Take my word for it: This is “Star Fox Meets Bullet Heaven,” and it’s neon and gorgeous, and you should give it a try. Gameplay footage:
- Scarlet Tower
Speaking of bright neon colors, this is a fast-paced, more challenging Bullet Heaven that will keep you coming back for those permanent upgrade currencies. Extra points awarded for the developer’s willingness to add Krampus as a boss for the limited-time Christmas event. Some footage here:
- Vampire Hunters
Some have called it the child of Doom and Vampire Survivors. An FPS Bullet Heaven with an actual horizontal escalator that will continue pushing you into the action. Check it out here:
Let’s end with a cozy one. This game will cost you a total of zero dollars. HoloCure is a passion project, taking place in the world of Vtubers. You can find the full game on Itch, and it will be also be coming to Steam. Gameplay footage:
There are so many great Bullet Heavens available, and the fire hose is still blasting at full force, fueling continued innovation and experimentation. Just jump in. Give them a try. The only thing you stand to lose is sleep.
And now, I have some nasty vampires to deal with…
Guest Post Contributed by Goat Force Gaming
When the Goat isn’t writing about his addiction to Bullet Heavens, he’s playing them and other roguelikes and roguelites out on the Goat Force Gaming channel (https://www.youtube.com/c/goatforcegaming). This community enjoys positivity, weekly game giveaways, and discussion of glorious foods and coffees.