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Vagante is extraordinarily difficult, but fun despite it

Seriously hard spelunking

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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.

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Who am I?

John Walker

Ritual Sacrifice

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I tried to leave, but they won't let me. If anyone reads this, please send help.

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