The Vagrant Review
Developer: O.T.K Games
The Vagrant follows a magically attuned vagabond sellsword by the name of Vivian Vermillion who washes ashore on a foreign land with the self-stated quest to learn more about her storied past. Only to unwittingly become intertwined with the pursuits of an ambitious and completely morally sound magic user who recruits Vivian as a servant and pairs her with her apprentice known as Camden. A small boy who doesn’t contribute anything to the gameplay, but serves as an innocent yet misled voice who nudges Vivian to pry into her past, while acting as a sort of bridge between her and the primary antagonist. Which acts as the underlying narrative bridge for much of the game while the bulk of the middle focuses more on episodic insights into this game’s dark fantasy world.
A world that is not morally gray as much as it is filled with ugliness from a wide spectrum of individuals, with Vivian’s journeys having her stumble into eloping lovers whose stories end in grizzly death. Fallen kings who succumbed to greed, malice, and assorted madness, killing even their loved ones and reducing them to lingering spirits who echo their sorry stories for all eternity. An organization possessing with an immense power over the world and international politics that is led by power lusting individuals bereft of morals. And a large number of characters bearing personality-based blemishes that are expressed as exaggerated physical deformities. Ultimately though everything does fold into Vivian’s personal journey, which is incidentally where I feel the story falters.
At the end of the day, The Vagrant is the tale of its protagonist searching for a way to fight against the destiny imposed on her from birth, and deal with the emotional baggage that she has been strapped with from her very conception. She goes into considerable detail about her past, origins, and paints this entire story as a quest to find her father and discover more about her seemingly cursed family, with the goal being to find some closure and be able to move on as a person once everything is said and done. A fine premise, but it means little where the player is not told much about Vivian as a person. What are her aspirations and desires? What does she want to do with her life after dealing with all of this baggage? Normally, I would be willing to let something like this slide, and highlight how the story remains compelling throughout the game, but this is the note this title concludes on, and makes the story as a whole feel more hollow as such.
As for how it all plays, The Vagrant is a fairly standard hack and slash 2D action game that mingles light platforming with enemy gauntlets and a familiar light and heavy strike combat system where the player is given a small pool of moves to use as they dispatch assorted baddies. All while building up meter for powerful supers for obnoxious enemies, bosses, and the occasional environmental oddity. It’s a well trodden string of systems that does remain consistently enjoyable due to impactful attacks, a good deal of enemy variety, and a nice sense of speed to the combat, with most encounters only lasting a few seconds before trodding out into the next room and seeing what it has to offer. All of which eventually settles into a reliable groove that is only notably shaken up when new environments are introduced, and when each informal chapter culminates in an enjoyable boss battle that requires more precision and restraint due to the longevity of the encounter.
This all goes to establish a general flow that is enjoyable on its own, but further variety is steadily seen in the development of Vivian as a playable character, as she gradually unlocks new skills, gains new weapons, and racks up EXP, or rather mana, in order to flesh out a fairly expansive skill tree. I believe that because of these elements, and the fact that the game has a map system that, at a glance, seems a bit labyrinthine, have caused some to peg this title as a metroidvania, and while I do see where this idea comes from, the only mobility upgrades can be obtained within the first hour or two, and there is really no reason to backtrack beyond grinding and bonus challenges that promise quality loot.
Yes, grinding. Something that is particularly encouraged during the endgame when the requested quantities of gold and mana became… absurd. However, there are a number of ways to rapidly accrue mana by respawning enemies and rapidly defeating them, either by entering and exiting rooms and reaping rewards every few seconds, or by using exploits as detailed in these videos I found. In short, there are instances where enemies spawn once Vivian reaches a certain spot, and after they are defeated, they usually don’t come back until the area is reloaded, and if Vivian rapidly touches the location that triggers this enemy encounter, by fluttering left and right incessantly, the enemies will respawn, allowing them to be grinded easily. I have no idea why the developers didn’t patch something like this out, or how this even happened, but I actually weirdly appreciate exploits such as these.
I don’t however, appreciate some of the design seen throughout the rest of the game, which contain instances where I found myself wondering if the developers were intentionally and willingly trying to frustrate players. Between evasive flying enemies that love hitting and running out of Vivian’s melee range. Status inflicting obstacles that are either placed in tricky locales, or behind foreground elements, because that’s fair. Certain attacks that can lock Vivian into a health draining combo that no amount of dodge rolling or potion chugging could really prevent. And the endgame is punctuated with a bonus area that I’m pretty sure if just meant to be cheesed through in any way possible. Seriously, that super boss is utterly outrageous. Thankfully, these bouts of irritation are mostly kept isolated to a few moments, and, at least on normal, I never found the game to be too overbearing.
Moving on, much of the reason why something like The Vagrant would stand out in the cluttered PC marketplace is its striking painterly visual style that many would rightfully compare to the works of Dragon’s Crown and 18 Sentinels: Aegis Rim developers Vanillaware. It is certainly a daring move for any small studio to make given how intensive the creation of high quality art assets can be, but O.T.K managed to pull it off, and delivered a title that, broadly speaking, is nothing short of gorgeous between its characters, bosses, and environments, all while boasting a good degree of variety in its locales and designs. Some of which, namely Vivian, are home to a very pronounced amount of visual fanservice..
Between the bikini, assless chaps, and a cloak that conveniently hides behind her hair, her design is questionable for certain, but it is also a very inexplicable design that is never really addressed by the story, or framed in a particularly sexual way, which honestly went a long way to numbing me on her appearance. Would I have preferred her design more if she put a goldarn shirt on? Yes. But I also get that some developers just want to make attractive female protagonists, and I can’t really begrudge them for doing so.
Though I can highlight other blemishes the presentation offers, most of which are rather minor, and likely can simply be dismissed as general oversights that the developers either missed or never got around to during this title’s life as an Early Access game. Between certain animations that feel jerky and as if they are missing frames. Art assets that have visible aliasing at 1080p. Other art assets that pop in and out of reality due to what I assume is a layering issue. Backgrounds that could stand to be touched up. And some obvious asset recycling, especially in the final area. User interface fonts that do not gell well with the dark fantasy vibe given off by the rest of the game. Menus that simply feel like they are placeholders, lacking simple features like item sorting and requiring incessant scrolling to see one’s newest drops. Item pickup notifications that cancel each other out when goods are acquired in succession. And inexplicably tiny dialog boxes.
None of these are technical dealbreakers, but do make the game come off as more rough than it would really need to if the developers worked on a final polish update before moving onto their next project, but I guess that’s just an unfortunate reality of game development. Oh, and as for the music, it fluctuates between tracks that I feel fit the darker fantasy tone of the game well and are genuinely enjoyable, some that come off as fairly generic fantasy fanfare, and one electronic dance track that is used in a steampunk laboratory, because… reasons.
The Vagrant is a title not without its blemishes or rough patches, but it does do all it needs to in order to be an enjoyable experience from start to finish, and considering the scale of the production, small team behind the title, and the incredibly low price point, I can’t help but be impressed by what O.T.K. Games put together in the end. It’s a solid, and routinely beautiful, 2D action game that I thoroughly enjoyed going through… and it’s pretty much the closest you can get to a Vanillaware title on PC.