It’s hard to get a read on just how buried an Early Access game might be. Most sites won’t touch them until there’s massive buzz, then all will pile in to try to grab a piece of that Google pie. Spirit Hunters doesn’t yet seem to have reached that point, so I figure it’s worth spreading word about this Vampire Survivors challenger that has taken over my life.
I’m going to assume you’re familiar with Vampire Survivors, but if not, this video will get you up to speed. Think Robotron meets roguelite, with auto-fire. So when recently putting together a list of suggestions of alternative games for Kotaku (in which I declare the genre name to be Automatic Horde Shooters), I discovered Spirit Hunters: Infinite Horde, and haven’t been able to stop playing it since. Like, losing necessary hours of sleep. It has all the same enticing elements as VS, but with far more beautiful art, and much more detailed locations in which to play.
And perhaps more importantly, I’ve found a much greater motivation to grind. Spirit Hunter‘s web (they call it the Divinity Web) of unlockable skills, maps, bonuses and boosts is as compelling as anything else about the game, where I’ll often set off on a particular run just to gather resources for a specific unlock.
At this point in the game (and there’s about another six months of planned development to go) there are three map types (the Steam page says four, but I’ve yet to find it, and don’t see a space for it on the skill tree), and two locations on each map to play in. Then, each of these can be played in an unlocked Hard Mode, which introduces all new enemies and bosses. Which is to say, there’s a lot of variety in there already, and promises of lots more to come.
I love the cartoon art, and it allows for an absolutely ludicrous number of enemies to be on screen at any point. And despite larger art for both the player character and enemies than VS, it doesn’t introduce the error that others have, where collision boxes are far too large. You can still slip through the crowds in the most satisfactory manner.
I just love the attacks here, too. And I especially love that the only other article I’ve been able to find about the game is The Gamer‘s explaining which are the best to use, and my utterly disagreeing with them on every count! I cannot imagine playing a run without starting with Orbital Fire, and then adding my shurikens as soon as possible. Then I try to get Tornado and Spears. I worried that this was such an obvious pick that the other skills might be way too underpowered, so it’s fantastic to see someone else massively preferring them.
Speccing them up as you play is also far more interesting than in VS. I love getting Orbital Fire, a circling orange ball that bops everything around you, can be given a larger radius, made more powerful, and most of all, sped up. I love getting it to my ideal size, then getting to max speed, above all other priorities, and then getting my shuriken numbers up as high as possible.
There’s a bunch of stuff pick up, beyond the crucial XP shards that allow all this unlocking and levelling up of abilities. There are coins, which can be used in the in-level shops (which really need a rethink on the design of the merchant, which right now seems to be made out of a collection of different racial stereotypes). Then there are three types of other drop that are spent in that Divinity Web to unlock different branches. Focusing on one or all of them changes how you might approach a run.
Oh, and the music! It’s SO good! A bunch of drum-and-bass tracks, one for each map, that loop so satisfyingly. I wish there were more of it, but I love what’s there.
My gripes at the moment are pretty standard for a game that’s constantly adding new elements and having to rebalance. I’d say the main one is that none of the characters unlocked after Magnus, your starting Dark Mage, are as strong to play as. Maxine, the Red Witch, is the most interesting, with far lower health but much higher movement speed, but she’s no chance on a Hard Mode version of any level. Conrad the Shield Knight is your tank, ton of health, but moves so slowly that he just doesn’t feel viable.
The latest, Hugo, the Treasure Genie, is much more interesting – he has a different measure of health, a collection of bulbs, rather than a bar in the hundreds, and when hit he goes invincible and super-fast for a bit, letting you dash around to collect loot and get clear of enemies. I’ve yet to master him, but this is a much more interesting direction for new characters, where it’s not about moving dials but completely new systems. A lot to ask, obviously.
I’m so hooked by this, and while I’m reaching the edges of the unlockable web, it’s such a pleasure to know more will arrive every so often. This is Early Access at its best. And this is the Automatic Horde Shooter at the best I’ve experienced so far. And due to the weird anomoly of VS charging just a couple of quid for itself, so many of the games in its wake have felt obliged to be equally ridiculously cheap. This is only £4, which is an extraordinary bargain for one of my favourite games of the year.