By: Fernando Da Costa
Developer: Nuke Nine
Available on: Linux, PC, Mac, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
LIKE A ROGUE! - Introduction
In a major revelation, I was today years old when I found out Blitworks are behind Splunky 1 & 2. Up to this point, I only knew of them from their work on Hammerwatch. This new knowledge inside my noggin explains why Vagante has a striking resemblance to both. The nifty pixel-art sprites from the latter mentioned title are here, while the former’s traversal reigns supreme. As a Roguelike, it’s pretty damn ballsy to forage into this oversaturated genre. Ever since I saw its visuals within the eshop, I have been curious. Upon realizing that it’s currently sitting in early access on Steam, I searched for videos. Shockingly, I found some dating all the way back six years. A lot of time has been spent in the oven, and first impressions were favourable. It tickled me then but does it still?
BUT CAN YOU CONVEY IT!? - Writing
Vagante is a pure gameplay experience with no actual narrative to speak of. There are, however, hints given at every loading screen after death, giving me insight into the various mechanics. It’s a common inclusion a lot of titles use to teach players how to take advantage of everything. I appreciate that because, in all honesty, there’s nothing worse than being left out in the dark. I always find it less satisfying when I’d play, only to see that half of what makes a game tick is wrapped in ambiguity. Sadly, that’s something that Vagante still struggles with. For instance, while playing, I came upon a fairy that was locked in a cage with no discernible idea of what to do. It wasn’t until looking it up that I not only saw what had to be done but that I could also make food.
Bluntly put, there’s a conveyance problem. It seems the game assumes folks have prior knowledge of it back when it was in early access. That’s not going to always be the case, though. Not taking time to teach newcomers the intricacies of features is alienating. Not doing so limits the available player pool, and if fresh eyes do buy it, being utterly clueless of lifting, throwing, and cooking causes avoidable frustration. What’s puzzling is that the tutorial that welcomes me upon beginning mentions nothing about any of those. In that vein, it encourages me to experiment, and for the most part, I do learn everything that the game fails to tell me. That extends to the structures scattered around the procedurally generated biomes. While the particular information is given through a tiny sentence after dying, it needs to be flicked on under options - remember to do so.
I WELCOME THE CHALLENGE! - Gameplay
If you’re yearning for a tough challenge, then prepare yourself. The sheer amount of times I met the grim reaper is staggering. There are traps everywhere and monsters itching to brutalize you. Thankfully, due to tight controls, everything’s responsive. Inputs never failed to answer my every whim. With that in mind, every game over screen I faced was my fault and my fault only. I tend to get overzealous, barreling in with weapons drawn. Vagante promotes a slow and steady approach, however, demanding I’m methodical with my moves. It also supports the decision to avoid encounters altogether if you so choose. You see, while there is a levelling system, the boss of a level alone can, with their demise, grant the experience needed - mass murder is but an option. Then, once you reach the transitional area between levels, the bonfire lets you confirm the increase.
Now, if you’re, like me, a masochist, then allow me to let you in on how to bolster the difficulty further. For anyone that enjoys Roguelikes, a common mechanic is obtaining items that aren’t identified. Instead, they’re all generic until they’re equipped, or you use a scroll of identification - which ironically, none of these are initially known either. Hard mode then saunters in if you immediately exhaust whatever is found. It’s not going to work with armaments, but if you stumble across scrolls, the fun begins. Those are not only consumable but have a variety of effects. They range from the good, the bad, and the ugly - uncovering a map without exploring, reducing element resistance, or outright lowering stats like strength or intellect for an entire run. It jumbles up the formula, turning this hair ripping time into a hair ripping while screaming romp of despair.
GENRES CONFUSE ME! - Gameplay
Before anyone gets too hyped, do note that this isn’t a Roguelite. It’s a Roguelike, essentially meaning there’s no carry-over with abilities, money, or with anything. Vagante strives to emulate the magic of those classic Rogue titles where in death, nothing follows to the afterlife. There is, however, a clever system that’s known as ‘Backgrounds.’ Think of this feature as a way to impose handicaps, as well as perks - they can be advantageous or detrimental; for instance, putting a bounty on your head. Doing so prompts shopkeepers to become aggro and attempt to mercilessly gun you down. It’s nothing but engaging, forcing me to adapt my strategy to any given situation and mold my next move accordingly. In conjunction with continuously shifting biomes, it also helps every run feel fresh due to no two being alike. The difficulty does see a boost, and the adrenaline, as well.
LEVEL ME UP, SCOTTY! - Gameplay
This next part may sound ludicrous, but bear with me; the progression in Vagante can level up. It’s also the manner in which the aforementioned ‘Backgrounds’ unlock. Whenever I was taken from this mortal coil, I was met with an elongated bar that acts like an experience stick. Filling it up is the intention, but it’s not without befuddlement - failure to convey extends well into this feature. I understand that by advancing through areas, it sees the best returns in terms of the points earned. What isn’t clear is why I’m prompted to discard an item. It’s obvious I’m missing out on a mechanic by not fully comprehending what this even achieves. As it stands, I randomly choose one with no real thought put forward, but surely, that can’t be all she wrote. I have this nagging feeling that I’m missing something, but what exactly?
While we’re discussing levelling, every class possesses a skill tree. None are extensive, adopting a simplistic design. Ability synergy is nonexistent, meaning that there’s no amalgamating them together to create an ultimate build. Instead, the skills have a row of four nodes that, with each one filled, improve what they can do. For instance, the knight can see their thrust speed become faster, while those sneaky rogues can enhance their stealth - cardboard box not included. There’s also the standard stat buffs - strength, luck, and so on. Since available points are limited, there’s only enough to invest in one section. This brings a sense of replayability since to witness everything; further runs need to happen. Basically, the mechanic boils down to being a watered-down interpretation of character building. I love it since it meant I could throw down a point and head out on my way without any forethought.
MULTIPLAYER MAYHEM! - Gameplay
You know, these days, online multiplayer has asserted dominance, with few titles doing couch co-op. When one does, though, I can’t help but be giddy. Nothing quite beats the chance to make a lasting memory with my niece. This facet alone helps Vagante stand out as I’ve not seen many Roguelikes support two players. In that respect, it’s apt that two words perfectly describe playing with a friend - chaotic fun. Antagonizing the shopkeeper only to sacrifice my niece as I stole items was a hoot. Other times, I’d confuse her character for mine, resulting in falling and impaling myself on a bundle of spikes, dying instantly. As retribution, she would chuckle at my demise. Thankfully, that isn’t the end, as I became a skeleton and could then continue. After a few hours, one thing is certain, Vagante isn’t exactly meant for a six-year-old.
THESE PIXELS AREN’T BY GOOGLE! - Presentation
Because of the minimal visual fidelity, the stability is smooth as a pebble. The pixel art has a grimy look to it but maintains those sharp edges. Especially when zoomed out, the sprites look crispy and resemble the small figures I was rabid over as a child. My eyeballs were pleased with the retro aesthetic and happy to see that attack animations were polished. There weren’t any stutters, and while I have difficulty discerning a difference between 30 and 60 frames, I do know that movements flowed. My one complaint is that the floor triggers that set off the collapsing boulder traps aren’t noticeable. Even with the screen inches from my face, there were times they’d blend into the landscape so well that I’d unknowingly step on one and be crushed. Thankfully, the crossbow traps are easier to spot and can be activated by shooting an arrow past them.
ZOOM IT ON IN! - Accessibility
I’m impressed by the effort put forward into ensuring that Vagante is accessible. Hell, one predominant critique amongst the community is that developers tend to fashion text to be ideal for handheld gaming. Well, it’s still quite tiny, but thanks to the boldness of the letters and the striking white, I could always read it - television or not. What truly shines is the settings that enhance docked gaming. For example, zooming into the action is a blessing, lessening eye strain and making for a much more pleasant time. Traps become obvious, too, although this pertains mostly to those automated crossbows. Bolstering the overall gamma does slightly highlight floor triggers but never enough to make a major difference. All in all, both Nuke Nine and Blitworks made some excellent accommodations for those of us with disabilities, and I’ve got to applaud them for that.
AND THE SPELUNKING VERDICT IS…
Vagante is a ruthless romp that, while unforgiving, gets the adrenaline pumping. Story is nonexistent, though, with both gameplay loop and delivering a hearty challenge being the main focuses. If you have a habit of grinding your teeth during the night, know your issue may be exacerbated. I felt my frustration fizzing up towards the surface several times. Sound Design surprises me most since a few tracks have a mystique - appropriate given exploration and never knowing what lurks in the darkness. Since Vagante is a Roguelike, expect some repetitiveness. I didn’t mind it since enemies function in patterns - my death meant bettering my tactics. In the end, in-game content isn’t expansive, but the multiplayer is fun, albeit punishing. I do wish pausing would stop the action, however. Let me use the bathroom and not potentially sacrifice my runs, please - it’s obnoxious.
With slick little tricks to discover and a bone-crushing hardness, Vagante is a test. A failure to convey, thus rendering mechanics useless, does hurt it, though, and earns this game a respectable 7.
Special thanks to Blitworks, who provided the code used for this coverage.