Each week Marsh Davies shuffles apprehensively into the dank catacombs of Early Access and returns with any stories he can find and/or a faceful of cycloptic bat guano. This week he quaffs an unidentified cyan potion and throws himself onto a bed of spikes, repeatedly, in procedural permadeath platformer Vagante, a particularly Roguish Spelunkalike.
Did you play Spelunky and think, “What this really needs is to be a lot darker, with several additional layers of complication and a much less parseable tileset”? Somebody out there did, and judging by the wholly positive Steam reviews, at least 68 other folk did as well.
I can’t claim to be one of these strange, troglodytic creatures, but then I also must confess that it took me many concerted attempts before I finally fell beneath Spelunky’s subterranean charm. Maybe it’ll happen with Vagante. It hasn’t quite yet - although some several dozen misadventures later, I am warming to it. It manages that rare trick, as Spelunky did, of making failure the most entertaining part. It’s certainly the most plentiful. My sorties into the underworld have ended in the digestive cavities of man-eating plants, as demon-dog dinners, beneath boulders, in spike-pits and in pieces, thanks to the Bandit King’s axe. But throughout, my most dangerous enemy has been myself - my incaution, my stupidity, my insatiable desire to immediately glug every pungent, bubbling concoction I find in the bottom of a barrel. If I discover a helmet made out of jelly, I’m wearing it. And then, when I realise it’s cursed, I’m going to drink my unidentified inventory dry, set myself on fire, and teleport into a pool of piranhas.
That inventory of hazardously randomised effects should tip you the wink: the additional layers of complication Vagante adds are partly a reinstatement of mechanics from the original Rogue. Where Spelunky tied empowerment to the acquisition of handy items, Vagante resurrects Rogue’s explicit levelling system. But it’s not altogether a step back into the past. Here it goes beyond mere number crunching - allowing you to put points into one of several skill trees, or “affinities”, which differ wildly among the three initial classes you can select and unlock potent new traversal abilities, attacks and more.
You’ll certainly need them. I’ve found Vagante is a good deal harder than Spelunky, though not entirely for gratifying reasons. For one thing, the muddy tileset, which doesn’t always boldly distinguish foreground from background, descends into an abrupt and total darkness at the fringes of your vision, making instantly lethal traps a lot less apparent. This was true of Spelunky’s dark levels - but they were a mischievous and momentary tip of the scales against you. Here it’s the entire game. Visibility of enemies and items is also defined by line-of-sight, which means that sprites flicker in and out of existence in exactly the way which human eyes have evolved to find immediately distracting.
There’s also the fact that a lot of early-game combat takes place within the range of a single tile. Given how many pokes are needed to adequately perforate an enemy, it’s hard not to end up exchanging blows. You get better at avoiding this, through caution and crowd-control, but the combat never feels especially articulate, and if a couple of the weakest enemies stack on top of you, the resulting flurry will usually do sufficient damage to merit a suicidal restart. Range options are initially limited: bows can only be fired horizontally and need to be drawn before they’ll go any distance. Magic attacks home in, but you’ll trade a lot of HP if you want to pick the class that’s particularly good with them.
Much of this changes as you level up, and Vagante really develops a character of its own as the three starting classes begin to differentiate themselves (and, incidentally, the devs are due a ripple of applause for making them gender-neutral or explicitly female, especially the unlockable hardcore "deprived" class). The knight has three class-specific affinity paths: Sword expands your melee options, allowing you to launch jumping and sliding attacks, overhead swings and charge-ups; Holy lets you disregard the threat of fall damage, and, at later levels, allows you to reincarnate following death at a cost to your strength stat; Defense lets you block and parry incoming blows, sometimes automatically. The Rogue’s options meanwhile, offer a significantly broader range of traversal options, with rolls and double jumps. Put a point into Stealth, and the Rogue can disappear from view, sliding back into the shadows.
A levelled up Mage, meanwhile, can instantly identify and even combine potions. A little boringly, most of the other Mage affinities simply make invisible numbers go up, but at least the variety of magical weapons, divided among spells and wands, is more colorful than the swords and bows preferred by the other classes. (Lightning Wand usage, incidentally, is not recommended while swimming.) But as powerful as these are, you’ll quickly burn through their limited number of charges, and you’ll need to luck out with random scroll drops to repower them.
As in Spelunky, some items have a clear, specific purpose: spiked boots let you deal damage jumping onto enemy heads while the equivalent of Spelunky’s climbing gloves allows you to cling to walls. Others still have even more exotic side effects - cursed items typically offer some alarmingly asymmetrical trade-off. And yet, that’s half the fun, inviting some new calamity by donning a mysterious cowl or slugging back a draft of some unidentified gloop.
All this gives the game some sort of trajectory of empowerment but it also withholds most of the interesting options until too late in a given playthrough. As a new player, it’s hard not feel constricted by your initially stunted movement set, by your sluggish, weak attacks. Spelunky was a game all about options. Items were a big deal and shifted your strategy significantly, but even when deprived of all, you felt capable. Importantly, you could determine your own route: picking away at walls or detonating floors to create shortcuts round particularly dangerous obstacles. In Vagante, you might occasionally stumble across a Wand of Digging, but otherwise the environments are largely immutable and the alternative paths through them are few. That’s fine, of course - you’d want Vagante to be different - but Vagante’s early game offers little alternative to Spelunky’s immediate and expansive sense of player freedom.
Yet in other ways it really is a fuck of a lot like Spelunky. Games are an iterative medium and the fact that we have entire genres that use the suffix “like” demonstrates just how beholden we are to the successes of the past. That said, there’s something slightly uncomfortable about a game that so clearly has its hand in another’s pockets. Shop keepers, and their irate behaviour once attacked, are lifted entirely. Damsels, and their healing effects once saved, are plundered wholesale. Stuff them bats into the swagbag while you’re at it. Vagante adds enough stuff to feel like an honest effort to move beyond Spelunky’s template, but I’m also not convinced that these are things that Spelunky’s creator, Derek Yu, would not have considered and then rejected in favour of the focus, balance and purity of his eventual game. In other words, perhaps the best Spelunky-like game has already been made - and it’s Spelunky.
I reach the end of this article and realise I’ve not mentioned the game’s alpha status. That’d be because, compared to most Early Access releases, it rarely feels like it is an alpha game. Binding controls for the gamepad is a bit of a faff, and the menus and inventory screens feel placeholder, but there’s a very great deal of substance to Vagante already. I really don’t know if it’ll congeal into something with its own distinctive flavour, or simply always taste like Spelunky cut with some unwelcome tang. But this unknown quantity is still appealing enough that, like a pungent, bubbling concoction found in the bottom of a barrel, I will still slug it back and hope for the best.
Vagante is available on Steam for £11. I died a whole lot in Alpha Version 11 on 16th January 2015, which is pretty different from the free alpha released at the time of the game's unsuccessful Kickstarter. Don’t fuck with Will-o'-the-wisps. They are bad news.