Review: Vampire of the Sands
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Roguelikes are notoriously tricky to balance. Even the most popular ones like Binding of Isaac are wildly all over the place, with some runs being cakewalks and others being an uphill struggle. What unites all the great ones, however, are those moments where fortune smiles upon you and that magical crossing of luck and skill delivers you a win. Vampire of the Sands has many of the parts to make these moments happen, and many more parts that will cruelly snatch them away.
I will say upfront that I’m a big fan of the premise. You’ve been resurrected by a necromancer to descend into dungeon beneath the desert and kill a vampire, who I guess is worse than having a practicing necromancer around. You pick one of four unfortunate revivees, each with a dramatically different playstyle, and then begin your descent into the subterranean sands. The first of eight levels is desert-themed but the others stray into such territories as breweries, libraries, tech bases, and meatspace. The pixelly foes are equally bizarre, so prepared to get murdered by smiling beer bottles and angry sculptors over and over and over.
During your journey you’ll find weapons that extend your attack reach, cloaks that take hits for you, masks that give you new abilities, scrolls, potions, wands, and more. There’s also money to spend at shops, keys to open chests, and scrap to randomly craft new gear out of. Honestly there are so many items that you’ll soon find your 16-slot inventory stuffed to bursting, and you’ll need all of them to battle the denizens of the dungeon. Or you would, if you even had the remotest chance against them.
I keep coming back to the enemies because Vampire of the Sands is possibly the most vicious roguelike I’ve ever played, and I’ve played IVAN. What you need to understand about this game is that EVERYTHING is stacked against you. All of the classes in the game die in one hit, except for one that has literally no other advantages. Cloaks can take a hit for you but immediately break, and there are plenty of monsters in the game that can double-tap you (or triple, or quadruple if you find other forms of protection). Your masks that provide key bonuses break in a single hit as well. And don’t expect to lean on your weapons, because they break in less than a dozen hits and leave you with your short, delayed melee attack that most enemies can outpace. Oh, and there’s stamina too, which you can’t attack or dodge without.
On top of all this is the soul system, which is a counter that counts down to your re-death. Since you’re a reanimated abomination, you need souls to survive. The only way to get them is to kill enemies or find soul stones, so a slow and methodical approach to combat and exploration is right out. There are classes that mitigate some of these issues, but horribly handicap you in others. One character is fast but can’t use potions, one has unlimited stamina but can’t use weapons, and one doesn’t need souls but can’t use armor. The fourth character can take multiple hits but has no other advantages, so you still have to deal with slow movement, breaking weapons, and the countdown of death.
The end result is a game that’s just too damn hard to find any fun in learning. If even one of the limiting systems were removed (one-hit kills or the soul countdown would be my vote) the game would still be hard but manageable, but this is ridiculous. My best runs have been ones that just bee-line for the bosses and cheese with unbalanced scrolls and masks. Most of the time I just get swarmed the moment I step onto any level other than the first and die. You can earn coins between runs to spend on Tetris-style runes that start you with advantages like items or new abilities, which is a good system for making overall progress. But it still isn’t enough to mitigate the absolutely punishing difficulty, especially when so many runs end too soon to earn you any coins for runes.
You only need to beat 2 of the 8 bosses to enter the final dungeon, but of all the people who have played the game even once, only 17% have managed that feat. Think about that, 17% of people who TRIED to play the game could beat 2 bosses in one run. This is a game for the folks who managed the never-get-hit achievements in Binding of Isaac, and no one else. And even THOSE people are bound to be frustrated by the strange bugs that remain in the game (despite the developer’s dogged efforts, at least). In the end, Vampire of the Sands is the most disappointing kind of game, the one that has a great premise, great style, and all the right parts, and then cranks up the difficulty to where virtually no one can enjoy it.