Roguelikes have a few defining features, like procedural generation and permadeath, that help mark members of the genre. But there are other features which may not be essential to the definition, but remain a clear part of the roguelike experience. Anyone who’s ever scratched the floor with a wand or purposefully blindfolded themselves will know that learning effective conduct is often expected for survival. It was in learning these little quirks of Vagante, of learning what items to throw on the divine anvil and when to burn books, that I realized what a complete roguelike experience it offered on top of the tight platforming and exploration. I mean, I also got that impression from dying over and over but the conduct bit really sold me.
There’s really no story that I can see here, aside from the crossing paths of a cave filled with mortal danger and a wagonful of adventurers dumb enough to enter. You choose your class from common and not-so-common archetypes as knights and mages and wildlings, choose a background that gives you some little perk, and into the dungeon you delve. All you need to do is reach the exit to the next floor but you can count on plenty of monsters and traps in your way, and the deeper you descend the more gear and abilities you’ll need to survive. That means plenty of exploring, plenty of looting, and plenty of dying to bosses you thought you could take for their treasure key.
The platforming here is a slower, more methodical type than you might be expecting depending on where you’re coming from. Your hero isn’t super swift and needs to mind pits and gaps because fall damage can mess a body up. Attacks tend to have clear wind-ups, both yours and your opponent’s, so dodging and timing strikes will be key to success. Deadliest of all will be the traps, with instant-death spikes and falling stones paired with arrow traps, hungry worms, piranha pools, and worse. If you’ve ever played Spelunky this is going to feel familiar, though Vagante never reaches the same slapstick heights that that one does. Death won’t be hilarious here (most of the time), it’ll be painful and at times seemingly undeserved.
The thing is that Vagante has a serious learning curve that has its roots in the OG roguelikes of yore. Like I said in the intro, old roguelikes expected you to learn all kinds of esoteric techniques to avoid death and stack the deck in your favor, everything from wielding cockatrice corpses with gloves to pouring potions into empty cans to keep the glass from breaking. Vagante will never ask that much of you but there’s conduct to consider here, and it can make a dramatic difference. If you’re going to make it much past the first area you need to know what shrine can heal you and which one can ID cursed items, you need to know what to use your valuable scrolls and gold on, you need to know what you should bring to campfires between levels to heal your self with, and so on.
You’ll learn to manage an impressive number of systems to succeed here, and fortunately they’re organized smartly enough that it won’t take you long to nail down the basics. Items you pick up go to a little active inventory where you can equip gear for powerful bonuses (nearly every item has a special effect on top of stat boosts), quaff potions, and read scrolls. Spellbooks can be used to learn magic attacks and leveling up gets you new bonuses or active abilities like rolling or stealth, further powerful effects which you can build an entire character around. And considering you can have a melee weapon, ranged weapon, and spell ready to go at any moment, there’s a ton of strategy to every battle.
All of this is packed into a gorgeous little package of warm, petite pixel art. Honestly I adore the aesthetic but sometimes it feels like a game made for ants, with some items little more than a blocky smudge on the screen. You’ll get used to it, and the rich soundtrack will help you feel at home here almost immediately. The only real hurdle to enjoying this one is the heavy roguelike influence, which is sure to please fans of the genre and intimidate everyone else. You’re going to die a lot learning this one, but after a few hours you should have some strategies down and be getting to the second or third areas pretty regularly. The meta-progression leveling also unlocks new classes and backgrounds for you, so there’s always a reason to keep pressing forward. Not that you really need it, though, because Vagante is one of the more thoughtful and engrossing platformers to dip its toes into the roguelike pool.