The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Indie, Pixelated, Roguelite, Early Access. Vagante once laid claim to all four of these cursed labels. With it’s recent release it has undone the shackles of the Early Access stigma, attempting to rise to the top of the over-saturated indie scene in which it resides. Will its loyal following be enough to spread the word of Vagante after such a stealthy release? Does it do enough to set itself apart from the other indie roguelites like Rogue Legacy, Caveblazers, and Catacomb Kids? Will I ever stop asking rhetorical questions? Let’s find out and get this review started.
It took some time for Vagante to really click with me. I was frustrated by its instant-death pitfalls and strangely paced combat. It wasn’t until I found myself playing as a holy knight, freezing my enemies with a frost spell before shattering them into crystalline chunks with a battleaxe, that I really began to understand the appeal. Oh, and there was a floating dandelion following me around healing me and generally being pretty cute.
Vagante begins without much pretext. There’s no story, no dialogue, nadda. Just a little tutorial before you’re dropped into the thick of it. And by the thick of it, I mean this game is dense with things that want to murder you. Rocks, arrow traps, cave bats, bandits; you name it. That’s all well and good, but the game is also amazingly, oppressively dark. Imagine if you were playing Spelunky, with all the difficulty that entails, then someone came up and covered your monitor with wax paper and Vaseline. That’s Vagante.
Okay okay, that’s a little unfair (and mean). Truth be told, Vagante sports some wonderful character-building RPG action. The muddy graphics and lack of visibility in the early levels means traps which should be easy to at least see become eye-squintingly vague; this leads to some frustrating damage (and deaths) that can leave the player feeling a little cheated. But this is by design, because it also means Vagante must be played slowly, methodically scanning the few visible tiles that lay ahead and ensuring they won’t leave you smeared on the floor.
This is what sets it apart from the aforementioned roguelites crowding the market. Rather than running in and stun-locking everything with rapid attacks like in Dead Cells, Vagante demands a methodical approach to enemy encounters. The player’s melee attacks have a delay on their swings by design, as do enemies’. This means you have time to get out of the way or block an attack, but in the early levels when upgrades are sparse, it can mean frustrating blow-exchanges with low level enemies. It feels unnaturally stilted, and even after I got more used to the combat, I was wishing my attacks felt better to perform.
Combat is by far Vagante‘s greatest weakness, which is a crying shame considering the game has so much going for it in the “systems” department. There are distinct classes with their own starting weapons and stats, all with upgrade paths that drastically change how they play. The Rogue can roll to avoid attacks, while the Knight simply blocks them. The Wizard doesn’t have good damage mitigation, but comes equipped with several infinite-use spells to keep enemies at bay. The classes feel so diverse to play that when I found myself frustrated, switching to another character kept me hooked in the moment.
The game boasts a surplus of loot and gear, all which greatly add to its depth. Gloves can allow you to cling to walls, you may find a helmet that lights nearby enemies aflame; these quirks allow a player to easily make a “build” suited to their playstyle, which can greatly vary from run to run. This is helped by the way the game throws gear at the player, allowing for choice as opposed to simply equipping whatever scraps you find. Everything is simple enough, with a leveling system, gear, weapons, and spellbooks. Combined, however, these systems can lead to some truly unique experiences. That’s to say nothing of the consumables, in the form of potions and scrolls which must be identified (you can also roll the dice by simply chugging a potion and hoping for the best).
Vagante‘s elemental systems also work in tandem quite nicely; water can be electrified, enemies can activate traps, fire spreads from one object to another. This can allow for some clever opportunities to outsmart the AI and lead them into a deadly situation while keeping out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, a more viable and common strategy is to simply stand on a ledge with a melee weapon and whack enemies as they try to jump up to reach you. That isn’t to say that I never found myself trying to dupe my enemies into suicidal escapades; that was always a lot more fun.
Every good roguelite also has a permanent progression system, and Vagante is no exception. Players fill an XP bar as they play and inevitably die, which unlocks passive “backgrounds” that they can choose in tandem with their starting class. One allows the player to start with a free level (one I found myself using almost constantly), another gives a boost to all stats with the caveat that gold cannot be picked up or spent during the run. These are fun to unlock and experiment with, and they’re a good trade-off to the linear progression of simply making things objectively easier after several runs. They’re just one more way in which the game tailors itself to allow the player more choices.
Choice is perhaps the single best word to describe Vagante. You can choose whether or not to even fight the boss located on each floor, for example. You can choose to use the key you get from their corpse to open a treasure chest now, or save it for later when you want to avoid a tougher fight but still want some treasure. You can choose to build your mage with strength and pummel enemies with a mace. The freedom of choice in a roguelite is it’s saving grace here. In many cases, a player would simply be shuffled from item to item and choose whatever had the highest stats. Here, they may decide to get a little more creative with their runs (like making a battlemage holy Knight as mentioned above). For its faults, Vagante is as fun as the time you’re willing to put in to figuring it out, and what’s here is more than enough to satiate those willing to suffer some early game punishment.
Vagante is a beast of a game; one look at the Steam user reviews and anyone can see that those who attest to its greatness have spent dozens (or hundreds) of hours in its halls. Learning the ins-and-out and the dos-and-don’ts takes a great deal of time. I will admit that I haven’t completely gotten Vagante figured out, and I commend those who relish its difficult and obtuse nature. Compared to something like The Binding of Isaac, where a run can get flipped on its head with a single item, Vagante‘s progression is much more of a slow burn. This makes it more interesting in the long haul, but it suffers in the interim periods of those early floors. For those willing to master its systems, Vagante is a game that will delight in its intricacy and depth. Some may be put off by the awkward combat and sinister traps, but I’m confident that the already strong community will grow in time, sharing tips and suffering together for the foreseeable future.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was provided to us by Nuke Nine.
For those willing to master its systems, Vagante is a game that will delight in its intricacy and depth. Some may be put off by the awkward combat and sinister traps, but I'm confident that the already strong community will grow in time, sharing tips and suffering together for the foreseeable future.