As one fires up Vagrus: The Riven Realms for the first time, they are greeted by a fair warning from the devs: This game will be difficult! It will try your patience, even if you are playing on “easy mode”. Also, there’s a lot of reading to do. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical. I’ve played several legendarily hard games and, well, even found some of them to be a fair challenge. But in the end, I had to cave in: Vagrus is difficult, Vagrus will test your patience. But, that’s the beauty of Vagrus.
THURSDAY? WELL IT IS APOCALYPSE DAY
Let’s go back to the very beginning. The game starts, in a somewhat traditional manner, with a cataclysm. A huge catastrophe has torn the once-great human empire to shreds. The Gods have abandoned us – for good, this time. Their place is taken by a race of new, evil and obscure divinities. They usher in an age of darkness and terror – with its only law being the survival of the strongest.
This is where we begin our long and perilous journey, through these once-thriving lands. We are a vagrus, basically the leader of a caravan of slaves and warriors. Where would we lead the caravan, and what would we do with our party? Well – it’s entirely up to us.
Creating a character is pretty straightforward. So is setting the main objective, like becoming rich or well-known. There is still a lot to learn, though. Luckily, there is an entire story-like campaign, acting as a tutorial: Pilgrims of the Wasteland. I am unsure whether I actually managed to complete it – at one point it just seemed to stop.
At least it did a good job, giving a basic description of how the unforgiving world of Vagrus: The riven Realms works. Basically – our caravan has movement points, which are used to travel between cities and other locations. Once these MPs run out – it’s time to set up a camp. At this moment, we must also answer some important questions. Should we pay our warriors their day wages, or do it later? Should we send them out to scout? Do we feed them less to save supplies? Each decision will, in the not-so-long term, impact our fate.
...AND ALL WE LEAVE BEHIND
Once we arrive at some city, there’s, once again, many things to do. Most importantly, there’s a market, where we can buy and sell goods – our main source of money in the beginning. Here we can find weapons and equipment to purchase and workers to hire. In addition, each city contains various characters we can interact with. They can give us quests, along with information on how to earn money or improve our reputation with the clans.
This latter is very significant, as reputation in the world of Vagrus does play an essential role. So, enriched and wiser, with all this information in mind – I began a new game and ventured into the world, trying to play as carefully as possible. Twenty minutes later, I was dead. My caravan had low morale and everyone just gave up. And I even gave them prostitutes, those ingrates…!
Indeed, Vagrus is quite unforgiving. It demands a lot from the player: both time and patience. There is the possibility to play on “easy” mode, which does lighten up things somewhat, but make no mistakes: death will stay be the soup du jour. As mentioned, there is a lot of reading – the lore is indeed quite deep here. Many terms will refer the player to the Codex: a huge encyclopedia where everything is laid down and described in minute details.
Handy for sure, thought I wish it wasn’t as text-heavy, maybe adorned with drawings and images. There definitely are a few beautiful pieces of art, scattered throughout the game. Overall, the writing is quite strong, all across the board – even if it didn’t really resonate with me on an emotional level, during my playthroughs. It does undoubtedly show the game’s origin as a TTRPG.
A TIME TO FIGHT A TIME TO REST
We haven’t touched upon combat, but that is mainly because it doesn’t really seem to shine. It takes place on six squares per side. The ranged warriors are positioned in the rear and the melee warriors are at the front. Each turn, the player decides which ability to use. There’s a normal attack, of course. There are also abilities, such as those that can immobilize an enemy or push them to the rear (so they might lose a turn, trying to get back to the front). Overall, the combat works okay. Although it’s nothing new and does lack a bit of excitement in the long run.
Graphically, it looks pretty standard – with limited animations and repetitive backgrounds. This is no Fire Emblem, for sure. Luckily, Vagrus: The Riven Realms makes it pretty clear from the start that combat is just a “sad” necessity. It’s never really the main focus of the game. For example, in my first play (the 30-minute one) I didn’t fight anyone. If so, then maybe, just like in Torment: Tides of Numenera, battles could’ve been designed in such a way so that you can skip them altogether, or automated? It would certainly help to emphasize the deep and lengthy narrative.
SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR FREE TIME
Our relationship with our subordinates makes up a significant portion of the game. In this, the game almost parallels Knights of the Old Republic. Keeping in touch with them and having conversations, along with making sure they are happy and well-fed, will be essential to not dying in the first half-an-hour, like I did. But, the main part of Vagrus is the unending journey on the caravan across the world’s map.
Unfortunately, despite a few random events, travelling around seems mostly about clicking, exhausting MPs, camping – and then doing it all over again the next day. Again, maybe this too, along with combat, could’ve been, at least partially, automated.
From the graphical design standpoint, Vagrus: The Riven Realms is a bit dry. Yet, there is also a lot to like, especially with the art, including the various drawings. I really liked some character portraits for the various NPCs I’ve encountered. Musically, unfortunately, there is little to note. The soundtrack seems, for the most part, content to just rest in the background and, at times, disappear altogether, leaving the player in complete silence. In the end, I resorted to playing my own Brian Eno instead.
In conclusion, Vagrus: The Riven Realms does strike me as an incredible work by a small indie dev team, who are sincerely trying to do something new and different. While I did make some comparisons in the review, if I had to try and find a recent RPG similar to what Lost Pilgrims did here, I would be at a loss.
With its mix of TTRPG writing and mechanics, with strategic and resource management, along with turn-based movement and combat – they’ve really got something special going on. But, in order to access that special something, the players are required to bow their heads and humbly spend hours to learn, trying, again and again, to get the mechanics right. Is it worth it? I would say: yes.