Vampire Survivors is a very simple gothic roguelike that snuck onto Steam Early Access at the end of 2021. By the start of this year it had begun blowing up, and the game that lets you “be the bullet hell” has since racked up over 100,000 positive reviews. Now it has a spiritual sibling out called 20 Minutes Till Dawn that asks the all important question: what if Vampire Survivors had guns? The answer is it would be another Steam hit.
While not nearly as big as Vampire Survivors, 20 Minutes Till Dawn managed to draft off of the former’s success thanks to small but significant tweaks to its core formula. Both games are about manoeuvring around a 2D map trying to survive a horde of enemies while negotiating a steady stream of random upgrade trade-offs. But where combat in Vampire Survivors is 99% automated, 20 Minutes Till Dawn functions like a twin-stick shooter complete with limited bullets in the chamber and regular reload animations.
Created in just a few months by solo developer Flanne and released in June, it’s horror-based but trades 8-bit-style pixel art for lo-fi anime vibes. Its difficulty curve is also steeper. You move slower while shooting, reloading takes time, and rather than a hit point metre your life is represented by just a few discrete heart icons (complete with veins and regular pulsing). In this case more challenge equals more agency, and where Vampire Survivors can occasionally feel like an auto-battler, 20 Minutes Till Dawn requires more constant vigilance, especially early on in each new run.
Initially you’re mowing down swarms of baby Cthulhu-looking creatures and demonic trees. Later serpentine gargoyles join the mix as well as mini-boss encounters that require you to switch up your tactics. Collecting the runes they leave behind lets you level up and earn upgrades like magical ice daggers, baby dragons, and, of course, more bullets and wider spreads for your guns (the runes are also spent outside of each run on permeant unlockable and upgrades). Enemies take longer to kill at first, and sometimes 20 Minutes Till Dawn can feel a bit rougher around the edges than the smooth dopamine drip of Vampire Survivors, but the greater sense of control over my character and each run keeps me coming back.
The Hades-like meta progression is still where the most fun is, and level-ups come early and often. There’s also an array of extra characters and starting guns to unlock that offer even more room for experimentation. As the name suggests, you’re trying to survive against a clock counting down from 20 minutes (Vampire Survivors lasts Till minute 30). There’s even a compressed 10-minute mode where you can experience the full cycle of horde survival in half the time.
It’s common for certain sub-genres of games to consistently do very well on Steam. Even still, 20 Minutes Till Dawn’s meteoric rise is noteworthy. Chris Zukowski reported on the whole mini-cycle at his blog, showing how it made all the right moves to capitalise on a trail blazed by Vampire Survivors. He’s quick to point out, though, that it only worked because 20 Minutes Till Dawn is a fun game that delivers its own smart spin on the formula. Flanne had been working on an homage to Final Fantasy Tactics called Spiritlink Tactics for five years when he pivoted, and now he’s devoting all of his time to continuing to update his surprise hit.
Update 0.7.4 just came on July 30, adding a new character called Luna who can use black holes to crowd-control enemy mobs. Like its Early Access inspiration, it feels as if 20 Minutes Till Dawn is only going to keep getting better.