For a genre defined by unpredictability, roguelikes often sound staggeringly boring. These are games for initiates, cast in the image of celebrated forebears - you at least have to know what Rogue is, whereas a first-person shooter speaks for itself. They are also firmly systems-led to the point of dryness. As such, their marketing materials tend to read like anatomical checklists, the same vital organs passed from developer to developer.
Vagante's Steam feature sheet certainly didn't set my world on fire: procedural generation, "choose how you play", "tough but fair", some unabashed debts to Spelunky plus a dollop of RPG-style levelling. I probably don't need to tell you that it's a pixelart affair. But then I played for 15 minutes, got sat on by a Baby Dragon and realised that Vagante is a game of quiet originality and verve. With apologies to developer Nuke Nine for being a cocky arsehole, here are a few bulletpoints of my own creation.
Vagante is gloomy, but the gloominess grows on you. I reviewed it on the Switch, which is in many ways the absolute worst platform to play it on, because Vagante loves darkness, and it also loves pressure plates a pixel wide, and spikes waiting below ladders like dogs below tree-bound cats, and arrow traps in far corners that must be anticipated rather than spotted.
The title screen gives you a brief glimpse of an astonishing forest - trunks like twists of silk, a moon solemnly rising from the last, fading band of daylight, a wagon trundling leftwards among sloping copper surfaces. It glows like an illuminated manuscript. Then the game whips it all away and chucks you into a cave system's worth of damp stalactites and fog of war. You do make it back to the surface in the second area, which has the ambience of a sleepy pond pierced by sunbeams. But after that come the Catacombs, which - well, you can imagine.
It's quite a beautiful game when you can see it clearly, with some lustrous, organic colour choices and elegantly squishy sprite animations, which makes Nuke Nine's taste for the shadows feel incredibly perverse. But after a while your eyes adjust. The feeling of peering through a keyhole has the effect of teaching you to linger over the details, especially the ones with sharp edges: glowing mushrooms, exquisitely patterned trunks, rusty sarcophagi in the backdrop. There's a neat crossover here between aesthetic appreciation and more practical objectives. It feels like you're being trained to savour the world even as you learn to lower yourself gingerly into dark spots, and scrutinise treasure rooms for telltale lines of slate or green.
Vagante is strangely non-frustrating - for a game that has such an unwholesome fixation with traps. I can't count the number of times I've been on a roll, blasting through levels care of a winning combination of equipment traits, only to get thrown onto spikes and somehow respond not with a howl of outrage but with a Mr Bean-esque chortle of weary indulgence. Tsk tsk, those spikes! Wherever will they turn up next? Perhaps it's the Stockholm syndrome talking but the traps never feel unfair, however unexpected. Partly it's that they also work against enemies - there's nothing more satisfying than seeing a Goblin King's charge rudely curtailed by falling rock - and partly it's down to some considerate unlock pacing in the early game, which ensures you'll typically return from the depths with a new class or background to try. Speaking of which...
Vagante has seriously bendy classes. The starting options sound routine - Mage, Knight and Rogue - but they shapeshift the second you lay hands on a new piece of equipment, tipping you towards one of countless hybrid styles. Your wizard might chance on a really sweet hammer that spits homing orbs and leeches health. This might persuade you to level up strength and vitality at the bonfires that bookend levels, rather than the Mage's unique enchantment and alchemy-based skill paths. A few levels later, your one-time mana-flinger has become a brawler who keeps a few lightning bolts up their sleeve for close encounters.
Conversely, your Knight might stumble on a bunch of overclocked spellbooks and intelligence-boosting gloves and decide to put brain before brawn - at least till you find a pair of sandals that turn you into Sonic the Hedgehog. There's some decent range even if you stick devoutly to each class's three or four unique skill paths. The Rogue can be a somersaulting archer or a light-fingered ghost. The Wildling can be a punch-drunk berserker or a ninja druid. The Houndmaster can do all kinds of things with dogs, often to the dog's distress.
And then there are the Backgrounds - sparsely dramatised, cherry-on-top modifiers that offer both helping hands to newcomers and pleasantly skewed challenges for experienced players. "Ascetic" buffs your stats each level, the longer you do without equipment, for example. "Illiterate" gives you a charred helmet and bombs to play with, at the expense of learning spells. I love it when fantasy games mess with archetypes I know far too well, and Vagante executes its classes with engrossing mischief.
Vagante is a feast of traversal styles. The variety between builds is most pronounced in how you probe and move about each procedural layout. It all seems elementary at first - a jump, a ledge grab, platforms you can drop or leap through - but again, the possibilities mushroom quickly. Dash and teleport spells let you bypass chokepoints, once you work out their ranges. Grappling hooks and climbing gloves allow you to abseil away from heavier bosses, peppering them with arrows from the ceiling. Triple jumps and angel wings all but let you fly, though the temptation to grab some airtime can be a liability underground. There's gear that lets you breathe underwater, or phase through walls. Weapons, too, shape your understanding of the geography. They all have different attack times, arcs and ranges - the flail is an especially tricky but very amusing toy, with a dramatic wind-up that smacks anyone creeping up behind you.
Vagante has sneakily destructible environments. I was a few hours in when I realised that water has physics and volume. You'll find levels that are being slowly flooded, corpses bobbing around and a single rat paddling away defiantly as exits are gradually obscured. You can even manipulate bodies of water for tactical gain - perhaps using a Wand of Drilling to drench the lair of a fire-breathing Baby Dragon. Don't get me wrong - this isn't Noita. The deformation is a long way from game-breaking, but in some ways, that makes it more compelling. Noita (which I adore) is a bubbling pit of chain reactions, with entire caverns often self-destructing before you've even seen them, whereas the possibilities of Vagante's spaces have to be teased out carefully.
Vagante is about objects that lie to you. What does this strange new broadsword do? Oh heck, it's a cursed blade that can't be unequipped, and which causes you to sink like a stone. What's this inviting violet shade of potion? Oh heck, it's just chopped your Fire Resistance in half. Best start hoarding those Identify scrolls (which need to be Identified in turn), because item properties switch around between levels with small regard for expectations from other games. As I have discovered the hard way, a green brew isn't always a Potion of Regen. Mages will find it easier to navigate this labyrinth: the Alchemy skill path includes an unlock that automatically identifies all potions. You can also feed items you don't want to the mysterious anvils and cauldrons that dot the levels. Watch out, though - the results won't always be beneficial either.
Vagante has a brutal mid-game difficulty bump. There's the hope that things are loosening up when you first set foot in the Forest area, with its relatively generous sightlines (and pixie snipers), but the ensuring Catacombs slam on the brakes with new forms of spike trap, disembodied hands with Facehugger pretensions, and ghosts that are invisible till close by. The Rift, finally, is a horrifying cocktail of lethal drops and enemy types that punish you for sitting still.
There are also the level bosses, who evolve rapidly from cartoon mascots that can sometimes be defeated through a simple exchange of blows, to evil knights and demons that can slaughter you in a couple of hits. Bosses hold keys to treasure chests and optional areas, but it's often possible, and practical to skip them if your inventory already runneth over with enchanted tools (or you're trying for a speedrun). Even if you fancy your chances, it's important to conserve health for the later areas: you can always recover a bit at bonfires, but prevention is definitely better than cure.
Vagante lets you do things when you're dead. There are some entertaining options for slain co-op partners that stop one player's fumble thwarting everybody else's fun. You can self-revive as a skeleton, who can't use equipment but can do recon and scoop up items for those yet living. Skeleton players get their flesh and blood back between levels, thankfully. Die as a skeleton and fear not, you can always reappear as a Wraith, which is basically a very depressed lighting fixture. I haven't been able to fit in much multiplayer thanks to an absence of players before the console release, but suffice to say, it has plenty of charm.
Vagante has a mysterious caravan driver. He's there in bottom-left every time you start a run, gazing grimly off-screen. How many heroes has this dour ferryman ushered to an ignoble end at the hands of a necromancer or an irate shopkeeper (yes, Vagante has these too, and no, they won't let thieves off with a first offence)? How many more lost souls does he have tucked away in the Tardis-like depths of that covered wagon? Was he once an adventurer himself? Is he a jobsworth profiting from the hubris of the bold - perhaps splitting his deliveries between Vagante and the Hamlet of Darkest Dungeon - or a monstrous avatar of the forest itself, sent to lure the unwary with promises of hats that turn gold into health? Does he feel the slightest remorse about his actions? When will it end? Also, do his mules have names and why can't I pet them?
Vagante is, all told, the definition of a hidden gem. Albeit one you should definitely use an Identify scroll on before equipping. I'm glad I played on Switch, eyestrain notwithstanding, because the smaller screen does reinforce what I like best about the game - its compactness and delicacy. Roguelikes are often sold as variety shows, but I enjoy them just as much for their sense of economy, the same parts unfolding into many fiendish combinations. Vagante is an elaborate little Swiss Army knife indeed, though arguably short of a headline feature.
True, it doesn't have the raw chaos of Noita, in which a single teleport-on-damage unlock can carry you halfway through without you even touching the controls. Nor does it have the personality and sex appeal of Hades, or the conceptual ingenuity of Loop Hero. But thanks to its deceptive straightforwardness, it feels easier to pick up than many of its peers. On which note, it's lunchtime. I'm off for another trip through the caves.