It’s hard to deny Vampire Survivors was 2022’s sleeper hit and the perfect refresher for indie roguelites to rethink what they could achieve after living under the shadow of The Binding of Isaac for more than a decade. Poncle’s surprise banger has already inspired countless developers to jump on the “infinite horde roguelite” bandwagon, and while many titles out there are solid riffs on Vampire Survivors, it’s hard to find truly unique angles on the new formula that’s here to stay.
Enter caiys, a UK-based dev among the few who have “cracked the code” and are pushing forward whatever subgenre Vampire Survivors gave birth to last year. Of course, like with Poncle’s hit game, caiys’ Boneraiser Minions draws inspiration from several genres and chunks of video game history. With the main attraction being that minions do the fighting for the player against the seemingly endless horde of enemies, I couldn’t help but think of the Overlord games, in which you played as an evil master looking to regain his lost power through the control of legions of servants bound to him through dark magic.
Although, Boneraiser Minions’ structure is that of a roguelite through and through. The ultimate destination of most runs is a return to the grave from which you just came – players control a boneraiser (necromancer) once killed that now seeks revenge after coming back to life. The Overlord connection is right there, and it’s expressed through gameplay beyond the basic premise of weird little (and big) guys doing the killing for you, as spells can be found and used manually by the boneraiser.
Back inside the mausoleum, the “meta progression” layer of the game offers more than just the traditional permanent upgrades found in other roguelite titles. One would expect caiys to settle for a quick homage to Vampire Survivors, but he’s gone the extra mile so far (Boneraiser Minions is in early access.) to give players plenty of customization options and even extra modes to tackle. The biggest surprise comes from the inclusion of a card-based side game that uses unlocks found within the main experience, but rebuilding the arena of combat ahead of pesky humans flocking in offers an unexpected layer of pre-battle strategy that you can tinker with in a variety of ways. As a result, there’s more to each run and the meta portion of the game than just leveling up the boneraiser and their summons.
This commitment to build variety is as clear as day early on – the game is quick to point out there are several classes you can evolve, each with its own playable identity and focus on different types of minions and styles of play. In fact, there’s even a “vampire survivor” class who is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cheeky homages and winks to both video game and film history. As tight as Boneraiser Minions feels, caiys hasn’t forgotten to have silly fun with this one. I’ve found myself often chuckling at the sharp and mostly comedic writing too – it flows naturally and is much better than you’d expect from a small game that is mostly concerned with how it plays and evolves.
Boneraiser Minions also allowed me to discover the excellent pixel art caiys crafts time and again for his games. While his earlier games showcase a different art style, it appears that something clicked together in 2015 with Straima, since the games that came after it also went for the extremely colorful, high-contrast retro visuals. After checking out so many retro-styled indie games over the years, it feels energizing to come across overlooked gems that look as awesome and unique as they play.
You might be wondering whether Boneraiser Minions is as easy to pick up and play as Vampire Survivors, and the answer is yes… kinda. I’d say the runs are generally shorter, and controls, while not as ridiculously simple, are very straightforward. Any tinkering that happens on the meta layer is fast and easy to understand too.
So, what’s the catch? Well, the moment-to-moment action certainly requires more of your undivided attention, as attacks don’t come from you, but rather from a herd of skeletons and other monstrosities that have a mind of their own, even if their prime directive is protecting the boneraiser. As a result, you have to be actively running around and dashing to avoid the biggest groups of enemies, collect bones and currency, and trigger some helpful traps.
Could almost passive runs be achieved as more unlocks are available and the strongest minions take over the battles? Maybe. But right now, I think Boneraiser Minions is actively avoiding the Vampire Survivors comparisons as much as it can. It’s a more chaotic, unfocused, and demanding experience in all the right ways. If you’re looking for another addictive horde-based roguelite while you wait for Vampire Survivors’ next DLC, I think Boneraiser Minions’ distinct flavor is well worth tasting.