Survival games also aim to unite two extremes of video game design. On one end, you have the evocative high-level concept of needing to survive in a hostile environment with only your wits and whatever resources you can find. And on the other, you have an ever-ascending stairway of crafting recipes and numbers to manage as you unlock more powerful tools and weapons, all while keeping vital stats from bottoming out. Successfully walking that tightrope is tricky; the correct balance remains elusive.
These games can sometimes tilt in one direction or the other: Some games deliver an incredibly immersive survival experience that features, say, a crafting system that isn’t very fun. Others serve up crunchy, satisfying mechanics in a world that just isn’t particularly engrossing. That’s what makes the early access survival game “V Rising” so exciting, as it provides an incredibly rewarding stairway of numbers while hitting you with the incredible thematic gut punch that is the sunlight mechanic, turning a normally cosmetic environmental effect into a game-changing mechanic that warps the way you play the game.
“V Rising” spits you out of a coffin after a long torpor with nothing but your claws and scant few vampire powers that won’t become fully relevant until later. The perspective is the same kind of faux-isometric camera that you’d see in old PC RPGs like Diablo, and plays remarkably like that game as well, at least when it comes to combat. But the main gameplay loop doesn’t revolve around this familiar combat mechanism. Instead, the focus is on staying alive, and your first priority is to create a shelter that will eventually form the literal heart of your vampire castle. To do so, you’ll spend more time clawing at trees and boulders than enemies to get the materials you need. Later on, you’ll also need to worry about your blood levels and the amount of blood stored in the heart of your castle. This shelter is doubly important, as the game doesn’t stop when you’ve exited your session. The shelter protects you from would-be thieves, killers and wildlife bothering your coffin as you sleep.
In most ways, “V Rising” is a standard survival game in vampiric garb. You’re still clawing your way up the crafting ladder toward ever-bigger numbers and ever-grander land holdings. When you first establish the core of what will become your castle, it’s literally a beating heart you must continually feed with blood to keep it from decaying. The blood you consume is also important, as different types of blood and different purities will give you different bonuses. But ultimately, though thematically necessary, these touches make up the standard numbers game and could be themed differently with very few tweaks to fit a different game. It’s a bit of crimson dressing for the numbers, if you will.
Not so with “V Rising’s” sunlight mechanic, a design that’s both thematically on point and a gut punch that pierces through the numbers to give the game additional dimension that other survival games don’t broach. If you know anything about vampires, you know that they can’t be in sunlight, lest they disintegrate. That’s why vampires only come out at night, and why they sleep in coffins during the day. That kind of hazard is absolute in vampire fiction, but would be tricky to pull off in a number-centric way (bars, meters, cool-downs, debuffs — you name it) without completely defanging it.
That’s why “V Rising’s” developers made the smart decision and simply sidestepped the question. When you step into sunlight, you have a very short amount of time before you start taking damage, and once you do, the damage piles on way faster than you can possibly mitigate. A later item you can craft lets you survive a little longer in the exposure zone, but for the most part, light represents a fast end.
As a mechanic, light in games has been shockingly underexplored. It’s mainly been used as an aesthetic element to make a game look better, or as a marker in games with day/night cycles. Its absence is also notable in some cases. A dark cave will often require a torch to gain some semblance of vision (though you can fumble around in the dark if you’re brave enough). The seminal stealth series Splinter Cell flipped this concept on its head by making lack of visibility desirable (the games have been described as lightbulb-shooting simulators). Still, it was a logical step forward for utilizing light as part of a game’s mechanics.
Other implementations, like in puzzle solving, have been limited to things like the classic light beam reflection puzzles from various Legend of Zelda games, though they’re never featured long enough in any one game to fully explore the concept. There are off-the-wall concepts like the solar sensor in the Boktai games providing you with vampire-fighting energy via actual sunlight from our reality. But by and large, you’d be hard-pressed to find many games experimenting with light in new ways.
Sunlight in “V Rising” turns daytime hours into hostile territory. Solely doing things outside of the castle at night is one strategy, but that’s extremely inefficient, and you’re likely to run out of things to do before the day ends. But there’s a reason the game’s first biome is a forest: ample shadows. As long as you’re standing in a shadow of any kind, you’re safe. In a way, this transforms “V Rising” into something more akin to a Zelda game than a survival game, putting hazards in your way and heavily warping the way you play by making pathfinding a major gameplay element. Anything the sun touches is lava. You’ll have to dash between shadows to survive.
Lest you think that this implementation can be generalized to be any kind of environmental hazard and not specific to light, the dynamic lighting system is what really seals the deal. In real life, the sun doesn’t stay in the same position all day, causing shadows to move as the Earth turns. The same is true in “V Rising,” albeit on an accelerated time scale. From morning until sunset, the game tracks where the sun would be and adjusts its shadows accordingly. This type of dynamic shadow tech isn’t unique to “V Rising,” but to see it used in a mechanical way as opposed to merely a cosmetic one is exciting for any type of game, let alone a survival game.
It’s true that some of this could be achieved with a different theming, like a flowing poison swamp, for instance. But this is a vampire game, and the connection of theme and mechanic makes for a home run. Vampires turn to dust in sunlight, and this nails that aspect of their mythology. What’s more, it allows “V Rising” to explore an oft-neglected aspect of vampirism: their weaknesses. Usually, vampire media homes in on what makes being a vampire rad and spins tales that amount to extreme power fantasies. Here, their vulnerabilities are not only acknowledged and explored, but put front and center as the main face of vampirism.
When you first wake up after creating your character, you’re weak. You can’t stand up to many of the harder enemies in the first biome you come across. You have to resort to drinking the blood of rodents to survive until you get stronger. And then there’s the light mechanic, threatening to turn you to dust in a matter of milliseconds. Yes, it could be a poison swamp. But it wouldn’t ring true to the theme, and it’s that element that so effectively marries the two faces of survival games, atmospheric immersion and crunchy, number-rich mechanics.
Survival games are about mastering the environment, going from nothing to thriving in your location of choice using your foraging skills, some recipes and a lot of planning. But it’s difficult to drive home the thematic elements in a genre that’s all numbers under the hood — and highly dependent on player choice. The fusion on display in “V Rising” offers a glimpse at where the next generation of survival games might go. What is the context of your predicament that you have to survive in? What is unique to these environments that can hurt you and that you need to prepare for? How can you embody the role of the player character in a world that’s hostile to you specifically? And how can you do all this while giving players a meaty progression path to dig into? These are questions that “V Rising” tries to answer, and these are the questions that the next generation of survival games will need to embody.
Jeremy Signor is a freelance games critic from Upstate New York. You can find him on Twitter @Jeremy_Writes.