Vagante is extraordinarily difficult, but fun despite it

Vagante has left early access after four years, so who better to take a look than someone who can barely get off the first level of this ultra-hard rogue-lite platformer? Everyone else, that’s who!

Vagante is the game for people who played Spelunky and thought to themselves, “Man, this game is WAY too generous.” It is a game that truly understands Mossmouth’s legendary rogue-lite platformer like no other that has come in its wake, and further understands the whole genre to an exceptional degree. And then says, “Why do they keep making those games so easy?!” Because it is insane.

What I find fascinating about Vagante is just what a superb execution of the form it is, to such a degree that it seems actively hostile to the idea that anyone might want to be playing it. It so keenly comprehends the notions of games where failure is inevitable, where potions’ purposes are unknown and potentially deadly, where a magic hat might sap your strength or improve your speed, where enemies come thick and fast through procedurally generated dungeons, and where any wrong move can see you starting over again. It comprehends them so keenly that it forgets that people might want to have some time in between those restarts to play it a bit.

I’m exaggerating. But only just. Vagante is fascinatingly hard. When I first started playing this week I wanted to condemn it for its difficulty, to dismiss it as a game for the smugly capable, uninterested in accessibility to anyone lacking extraordinary gaming prowess. But I kept playing. And instead of getting further the next time, or discovering a new technique for lasting longer, I’d step on an invisible platform in the near pitch-black that dropped a block on my head for 999/90 damage, within three steps of starting, and lose again. And yet I kept playing.

The game takes on every required trope of the genre, from randomised unlabeled potion and scroll colours, weapon and armour drops that need to be identified unless you’re willing to gamble with wearing something cursed, little shops that sell items for loot, and occasional randomised peculiarities on levels, like their being over-populated with slimes. It does all this with utterly splendid pixel animations, really distinct enemy types, learnable attack patterns, and multiple classes to play as, seemingly improvable via gained XP – although I’ve yet to fathom how one actually improves a class’s abilities.

I am getting better at it. Incrementally, on such a slow and minute scale that it’s imperceptible to the human eye. To record my progress you would have to use time-lapse photography, and then watch the results on fast-forward. And then I make some colossally stupid mistake and die anyway. I’m not even going to admit how embarrassingly far I can get in this game, but I think it’s testament to what’s here that I’ve been happy to play those same few levels so many times. Well, “happy” is a strong term. Determined? Obstinate? Somewhere in there.

To give an example of just what a big f-you this is to anyone who thinks, “Hey, I got to the third world in Spelunky once! I can do this too!” the opening level is called “Dark Caves 1”. As in, it’s too dark to really see what’s going on properly. Vagante always starts with the sort of conditions that if Spelunky threw up as a first area, I’d restart. This is, as it happens, a bit of a shame, because Vagante is gorgeously pretty, and you can barely see it. Find a mapping scroll and for about two seconds it all lights up, and I think, “Yes! This game!” I’ve used those moments for a few of the screenshots here, because otherwise you’d be squinting at a black rectangle. Like this, which is what the game looks like most of the time:

It seems such a shame it hides its pretty lights under a bushel.

But then Vagante isn’t designed with people like me in mind. People for whom Spelunky and its imitators are already an insurmountable challenge. But for those who sniff at our weakness, this is the game for them. Perfecting playing Vagante is a vocation, and while I’ve been chipping away at that over the last couple of days, I’ve still got a giant cube of marble with a few cracks in it.

As such, I can’t usefully review Vagante for such adept specialists, but I can tell you that I’m bemusing myself with the fun I’m having being so astoundingly bad at it. If you breeze through Spelunky and its ilk, this is unquestionably the game for you.

Vagante is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux, for £11/$15/15€, via Steam and Humble.


  1. otakucore says:

    I LOVE Vagante. For me it’s not about being really good at games so much as curiosity, mystery, and danger. I still haven’t beaten Nethack, and I played it for years. (I count myself lucky if I make it to Gnome Town and kill all the gnomes.)

    As with Caveblazers, I wish the combat mechanics were deeper, but I’m starting to learn the Rogue’s acrobat and archery abilities, and the knight has a “block” move that can be learned, so there’s definitely more to combat if you level. Trying different tactics and abilities is great fun, even if it does seem 1980s-era basic.

    The unlocks are also surprising and rewarding, though I have a feeling some of the joy of replaying will be lost (as with Caveblazers) once they’re all unlocked.

    There’s so much mystery in playing this game, I feel like the hours of entertainment will be worth it even if my final sentiment is “meh” once I’ve figured it all out.

  2. Michael Fogg says:

    The thing with Spelunky was that it did away with gambling elements of roguelikes like b/u/c item status or random potion effects and made everything behave according to a set of rules while retaining unpredictability due to the randomised level design. It was almost completely skill based as a result. Vagante seems to stick to the old ways.

  3. anjovi says:

    A suggestion for those who want to enjoy the graphics more:
    Go to the option menu and zoom the camera inwards! I find it greatly compliments the graphics and adds to the immersion.

    It’s not nearly as pretty when it’s all zoomed out.

  4. ludde says:

    Speaking of hard to see, these screenshots are really small. Can’t imagine what they’d look like on a 4k screen.

  5. Psychomorph says:

    They should make a game called Vegante. You can only consume plants, have maximum 50% health and the only way to defeat enemies is to run away from them.


  6. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    Can anyone compare it to Catacomb Kids? That’s another game that seems to be trying for the same thing (Spelunky + old-school D&D via Nethack), but in a rather different way.

    • nadcaptain says:

      As someone who owns and has put some time into both Vagante and Catacomb Kids, I have to say they’re different enough to justify playing side by side. The main difference is in combat. Catacomb Kids’ combat is a lot more dynamic and fast-paced, whereas Vagante’s combat is a bit slower and has less variety (though this gets better as you level up). Vagante handles its scrolls and potions quite a bit like an oldschool roguelike, which is kinda like how CK treats its potions. Loot in Vagante is also a little less dynamic, though not by much. You find/buy items with a couple of randomized properties, not unlike Diablo II, though those properties are fewer in number.

      All in all, however, when I play them, they both scratch different itches. Sure, they’re doing exactly what you said (paring a platforming experience with fairly authentic roguelike elements, a la Nethack, ADOM, etc), but they feel so different. I love CK for the action and being able to pull off some crazy moves in combat, but I love Vagante for being able to take a slower, more methodical approach.

      I’d say they are both well worth owning.

    • Lery says:

      Caveblazers are also recommended, with its fast-paced combat, relic system(alike Risk of Rain), 2-level upgrades, better lore and reaction of npc.

  7. Pupps says:

    I haven’t played this in a long time, but I recall that killing the boss on each level instantly fills your xp. Glad to see it’s out of early access. Will have to play it again

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