Vincent Mahoney’s Save State: Eight Bits of Glory Featuring Vampire Survivors and Panzer Paladin

Welcome to Save State, where we take a brief respite from playing 16-bit side scrolling action-adventure games to play 8-bit side scrolling action games. After receiving my Steam Deck a couple weeks ago, I was looking through my library for good games to test buttons, the d-pad, analog sticks, and things like that. While looking, I discovered a curious game called Panzer Paladin that must have come from a Humble Bundle, but I initially paid it no mind. Being the sucker for alliteration I am, I decided that a 2D action game would be the perfect way to test the Deck’s d-pad, and it wound up sucking me in with its excellent pixel art, upbeat soundtrack, and fun weapon system. So, for this week on Save State, I’ll go over a couple games that I initially tried out just to test buttons on a new toy, but they ended up holding my interest for several hours thereafter.

Upon booting up Panzer Paladin, you’ll be treated to some delightful 8-bit cutscenes done in the finest 1980s anime art style. There’s just something about the fluffy hair from something like the 80s and 90s Mobile Suit Gundam series that’s just immediately attractive, and Panzer Paladin leverages this nostalgic bend while pulling inspiration from a wide variety of sources. You play through a brief prologue level that teaches you the ropes of the game- you pilot a giant robot that can use its fists or a variety of weapons to eliminate foes, but you can have the pilot hop out of the robot to go through tiny passages in which the mech can’t fit, like Blaster Master.

The stages of Panzer Paladin are all set to the backdrop of wherever they’re going on in the world- the Egypt-inspired stage has pyramids with floating tops in the background, and the US stage looks as if it would have been right at home in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game of some kind. Through each stage you’ll defeat enemies and navigate obstacles on your way to defeat the boss of that area. As the player, you’ll take the special weapon they have, which you can then use in the next stage to relentlessly slaughter enemies until it, too, breaks. There’s a large number of weapons in Panzer Paladin and using them whittles down their durability until they break.

Thankfully, enemies all throughout the world drop weapons at a pretty constant rate. Each weapon you find has its own attack speed, damage value, durability, and throw damage multiplier, so you’ll be killing enemies and consuming your weapons at a pretty constant rate. Each weapon also has its own unique spell you can activate via breaking the weapon by holding down the trigger buttons. These spells are what really set Panzer Paladin apart. Some spells simply buff the stats of your mech by boosting damage or defense, but others can restore health, allow you to fire sword beams, let you to deflect enemy bullets, or gives your mech wings. There’s honestly a great variety, and you’ll be rotating your stock of weapons pretty constantly. You’ll get to use the spell abilities of your weapons often.

Of course, telling gamers that they can’t horde weapons like a national defense armory is usually a crime. But in Panzer Paladin, stockpiling too many weapons will increase your Spirit Burden which causes you to take more damage, makes enemies harder to kill, and summons an additional boss in the middle of stages to hassle you. After realizing why I was being heckled by the Horseman Boss in every single level of the game, I started throwing and breaking weapons for their spells constantly, but the game throws so many swords and spears at you so constantly that I actually had difficulty keeping my Burden under the threshold. So, never worry about running out of weapons. Even if you could, the mech’s default punch attack has poor range but deals almost as much damage as any sword or spear you could find.

After clearing the prologue of the game, you’ll be treated to an almost Mega Man style level select where you can choose which stage you go to next. Unlike Mega Man, however, the boss order in Panzer Paladin doesn’t explicitly matter- you don’t get a permanent weakness weapon or anything, you just get a weapon that’s slightly better than the usual ones you find in the stage, and they’re just as disposable. So, that nice shiny curved sword you got from Medusa should be used with impunity and then consumed to fully heal you before its durability is completely exhausted. Treating the weapons as disposable makes a lot of bosses and stages easy because you won’t think twice about throwing a fresh dagger at a projectile shooting enemy on the other side of an instant-death pit. There are only 2 checkpoints in each stage: in the middle of the level and one right before the boss – and that’s it. Spending 1 of many weapons to safely make a jump is definitely the better choice.

That being said, the visuals of Panzer Paladin are great, and the soundtrack is spectacular. It features an 8-bit OST that you can switch to, but I tended to prefer the original musical score which combines chiptune with modern instruments. But either way, the core instrumentation fits each stage you go to, and the Horseman Boss battle track is strangely catchy. It starts off with vibes of something like Proto Man’s theme from Mega Man but shifts quickly into an upbeat and bright boss battle track. I’m traditionally a sucker for retro game soundtracks, though, so take that with a grain of salt.

All that being said, Panzer Paladin was a fun time. From the prologue all the way through to the end, the stage design stayed solid the whole way through, and it didn’t really introduce any new mechanics as you went along. If you’re up for a well-designed 2D action game by the same people who made Steel Assault, Panzer Paladin will be right up your alley. Clearing the game doesn’t take super long. There are a whopping 17 stages, but there’s also challenge mode, and you can make your own weapons in the Blacksmith mode that can be dropped by the Horseman in other player’s games, which is just a neat feature.

So, you might be thinking: Okay, sure, you tested the d-pad and buttons of your Steam Deck with Panzer Paladin, but the sticks, man, how did you test the sticks?! Well, that was with a little game a good friend of mine sent me: Vampire Survivors, a strange little game I didn’t think I was going to enjoy all that much because you primarily play it by moving the analog stick and letting the game attack for you. The game itself is still in early access, but this skinner box with strategic elements kept me entertained for far longer than I feel I should admit.

Vampire Survivors, at least from the outset, does not look like much at all. The music is pretty catchy, but the visuals themselves look fairly threadbare, right down to the menu which is serviceable but could use a graphic designer’s touch. None of that has any bearing once you actually choose your character, stage, and start a round, as a lot of that just fades into the background as you see hordes upon hordes of various undead chasing you. Killing the monsters rewards you with experience gems that you need to walk near to collect and leveling up lets you acquire new powers and passive abilities, opening new avenues to attack or making what you have already more efficient.

The more you play Vampire Survivors, the more weapons and passives you’ll unlock, which increases the ways for you to cut through the hordes. Some passive abilities and weapons can combine to upgrade each other, making them substantially more powerful. You initially just start off with a whip and a few Castlevania references, like the holy water and axes that fly in an upward arc, but after finding a specific passive ability, you can turn the axes into spiraling scythes that cover the whole screen and pierce enemy mobs. Leveling up rewards you with these new weapons and passives, but there’s a decent bit of strategy wrapped in the luck of your 3-4 level up bonus choices.

The actual gameplay of Vampire Survivors is like a combination of a bullet hell with an idle/clicker game. Early in rounds, you’ll need to weave your way through enemy mobs as most character’s starting weapons aren’t exactly the greatest. After acquiring enough upgrades, you’ll be efficiently slaying all zombies and ghosts that even try to get close to you. Rounds of the game are 30 minutes long, after which a grim reaper will show up and force a game over. Once the round is over, your coins collected get added to your overall total and you can spend the aforementioned coins on small stat bonuses for your characters, making your next round even more efficient.

Vampire Survivors is probably the closest I can get to an auto clicker game and still be entertained. There’s a lot of “feels good” audiovisual feedback that can make doing multiple runs of the game insanely addictive, very similar to how Lapis Labyrinth showered you with jewels and makes you feel crazily accomplished. The gameplay loop on its own is reasonably addictive, but the fact that clearing almost any task rewards you with a new unlockable ability or character. Every unlock improves your ability to clear enemy hordes a little bit more efficiently, with some unlockable mechanics that also have unlockables that confer useful bonuses, like the arcana system. There are no turtles here, it’s unlockables all the way down.

Rounds of Vampire Survivors being limited to 30 minutes pretty much ensures that the gameplay loop doesn’t overstay its welcome for any length of time, and if you have around 45 minutes to an hour to kill, this game can be a great way to spend it. It’s not exactly a difficult game, but the upgrade loops and bullet hell-like enemy mobs do quite a lot to make you feel as if you’ve overcome a tremendous challenge, especially when it’s your first time killing the grim reapers, for example. If you’re into auto clicker games, or games with roguelite elements, Vampire Survivors can be a great way to spend $3.

With that said, this week’s Save State has now come to a close. Remember: if they didn’t want you to eat glue, they wouldn’t have made it so delicious. Until next time!

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