Developer: Nuke Nine
Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
Also Available On: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Sometimes, living up to the paths carved by previous games is a chore unto itself. When you think about the success of Hades, you first need to consider the Supergiant line of titles (Bastion, Transistor) and figure out how the narrative style of Hades builds on these games to compare in terms of storytelling. In the same vein, when we see games like Void Bastards, you need to think about other FPS roguelites (Immortal Redneck, Paranautical Activity) and consider the strengths and weaknesses of each. The upshot is that, when a game is legitimately good, it’s easy to draw comparisons as to what they did right versus their predecessors. By the same token, if a game is middling or even bad, then it’s easy to point out older games that did it better.
For Vagante, a roguelite platforming exploration game, the situation is a bit difficult. On the one hand, it’s a simple premise with a good execution. You live in a world where evil, magic and monsters roam, but they’re confined to the deeper woods and creepier parts, thus allowing most people to live in harmony. However, rumor has it that a certain cavern deep in the forest has untold riches within, and, like all great heroes, you’re driven by your purse strings to hurry up and go loot that cave. Choosing from one of several unlockable classes, you must brave the depths and the dark, fighting beasts and avoiding traps to gain greater weapons, strong magic and, hopefully, wealth beyond your wildest dreams. It’s a real rags-to-riches story, if the path was incredibly dangerous and stupid.
The earliest and clearest comparison that one might draw is from Spelunky, another fabulous roguelite cavern exploration game, but it’s important to note that Vagante brings plenty of its own spice to the table. First and foremost, the amount of loot that you can find in this game is truly special, and something that’ll instantly draw the crowd who sniffed out the word Diablo in the reviews written by others. Vagante does an amazing job of making sure there’s a vast array of unique, wildly varied items to find with each run, from shorter ranged blades to longform bows, and the tutorial makes sure you’re generally familiar with how to play with each before you dive headlong into the game. It was awesome to pick up a handkerchief and find out it was a scarf that summoned a floating sword that stabbed my enemies There’s a small chance to bring on the weapons you find to the next area provided you do a decent job of survival, so the incentive to not die is high enough that you get better at mastering the unique control scheme that’s set before you.
That’s another really great point about Vagante: the game is setup to give the player success as long as you figure out the ins and outs quickly. Being a balance between exploration and combat, Vagante has a lot of little movements that combine into something that turns the game into a fluid dance of action and caution. Being able to stack hits and magic quickly while also quaffing potions can elevate the simplest fights into a real cacophony of violence and mysticism, so you can ensure a majority of your forward movement through better gameplay. This is one of those rare titles where “get good” applies, but only so much. You also have to be aware of the conditions for each unlock (bringing back enough loot to unlock additional perks and such), so it’s a tad beyond just playing in a tight manner. Being knowledgeable is also a key ingredient to success.
Yet there’s another game that comes to mind when playing Vagante, and that’s a little title called La-Mulana. In La-Mulana, players make the most success in the game by being precise with their jumps, whips and beats because the entire temple where they’re exploring is riddled with traps and unseen monsters. Players love La-Mulana because there’s so much to investigate and find out, and you get better by memorizing the paths to certain powerups and also remembering where certain murder traps are. While this might seem like high praise, having those elements in a roguelite game is, to say the least, deeply frustrating and dissatisfying. There is nothing cheaper than having a one hit kill trap right in the first cavern, and I had that experience MULTIPLE times. Additionally, it wasn’t even in the same room or position every time, so the result just compounded my frustration. I understand what we’re trying to emulate with this notion (caves are dangerous!), but we’re already dealing with danger in terms of rushing dragons, murder slimes and flying enemies that are shockingly hard to target. Maybe don’t have cheap traps strewn about in addition?
My second complaint is that the game becomes too one-note regardless of which class you play. You can level up between stages, customizing your character to be better and more proficient in different skills and weapons, but it all just kind of normalizes out in the end. You enter a pretty steadfast loop of fight, loot, survive, upgrade, continue. Though a couple of massive enemy encounters (I hesitate to use the word “boss”) livened things up, it felt like there was very little difference between whether you chose Rogue, Mage or Knight from the beginning, because that only affected how you started. There’s almost nothing to prevent you from ensuring your rogue is primarily a spell slinger, or to have your Mage tote around a massive ax (that, interestingly, provided an intelligence boost). It all comes out in the wash, as they say.
Having said that, Vagante scratches an important itch I didn’t realize I had. The finely detailed pixel art style combined with the sparse but ambient soundtrack gave me the real feeling of cavern exploration, not dungeon crawling, which was such a breath of fresh air after so many games that just felt like Zelda meets Nethack clones. The game is sincerely tight, and this port for the Switch is a true labor of love that has come out smooth and clean. Though it might be repetitive at times (and infuriatingly cheap at others), I kept coming back for more, trying to learn what couldn’t be taught to survive what I shouldn’t be able to survive. My only suggestion: play in docked mode, not handheld. This isn’t for the view: it’s so that, when you die, you only throw your controller and not the whole damn system.
In spite of some cheap deaths and repetition, I can't deny the tight world of Vagante, nor the addicting qualities of this roguelite exploration slasher.