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The best games you missed in 2021: Vagrus - The Riven Realms

Margin orders

If you're anything like me, when you start a game you will almost invariably try to run off into the woods or swamp and aggressively ignore anything even passably resembling a main story. After hours of feeling like a brave rebel by doing this in Vagrus - The Riven Realms, I realised it's how you're supposed to play it. This is not a game about some Epic Quest or grand campaign. It's a game about running a caravan in a world that just happens to have a cool history.

The premise is that simple. You're a vagrus, leader of a merchant caravan that plods about a post-apocalyptic fantasy world in search of fortune, fame, or bumming around as you like. That world isn't a nice place, which isn't surprising given that the very cool backstory had the Big Empire become so utterly appalling that the gods themselves decided to drop the big Monty Python stompy foot on everything in a fit of rage. They then left altogether, unaware that there were survivors. By the time you show up, things are somewhat rebuilt.

It's not as grimdark as it seems. Most people I've met have been pretty sound, a welcome change from interpreting "difficult" as "everyone is a hostile prick for no reason". The stock fantasy races are here but rarely remarked upon, with even the dragon people treated more like a neighbouring kingdom than fundamentally Other. As a roving trader you're unremarkable, neither downtrodden nor particularly influential, and will mostly travel between settlements in an open world, doing the old low/high biz. There's no main plot as such, just several smaller stories you might pursue. This is unexpected given the atmosphere and detail written into the world, but it works in its favour. You discover characters and areas and hidden bits because you're living and dealing in that world, not because the plot requires it. It's more of your own little story, even if it's a humble and everyday one.

Your steady income is from faction delivery jobs. You get a little income from taking on passengers too, and loose change from spreading news and rumours around. Fighting is rarely profitable unless you're equipped and paid for it, keeping it from sliding into standard RPG patterns. Despite warnings about difficulty, you can do well by keeping a low profile, taking your time and growing very slowly instead of rushing.

An illustration of some mysterious rock spires in a desert in Vagrus - The Riven Realms

Character skills are learned by spending insight points, which you gain not from trading or fighting, but by seeing new places and ideas. It's far more akin to real experience than the meaningless XP systems we've come to accept as standard in modern games, and thanks to the interesting fantasy world it works better than the similar system Underrail tried. The writing largely keeps out of the way, too, if you're not interested in much reading, so you can skim it at first and ease into that world over time. If it only had fonts that weren't so impossibly tiny I'd have probably written about it several times by now.

Vagrus is an unusual game despite sounding like a lot of other things. It's not the standard open world Elite derivative, nor a typical RPG or choose your own adventure game. It's about escorting some guys who are looking for work not as a mission but because you're the next caravan going that way. It's about keeping everyone's spirits up so they'll forgive you for not paying wages until you get to the waystation. About splashing out on an inn because your people have had a rough week. All that could work in a pure, dry sim, but doing it in a rich and original world whose rules you'll learn over time makes the small successes and the ups and downs of the road feel more significant. And if the worst happens, it actually has a proper save system. Let's hope 2022 finally brings an end to the idea that "saving the game like it's not still 1982" is something worthy of note.

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