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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (416)

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I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5
Victor Vran 3/5
Front Mission Evolved 2/5
Greedfall 4.5/5
The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5

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The Vagrant   PC (Steam) 

Chinese Knock-Offs are Getting Better    4/5 stars

“The Vagrant” is the 2017 inaugural release by O.T.K. Games (not to be confused with One True King, an association of Twitch streamers that uses the same acronym), a small Indie studio consisting of three Chinese guys, Wang, Rong, and Liu, who actually started working together in 2014, with an unsuccessful Kickstarter crowdsourcing event. When I saw initial footage and screens of “The Vagrant,” I immediately thought it was a new game by Japanese Indie developer (and Sony whore) Vanillaware, due to the gorgeous hand-painted visuals and sexually-charged character designs.

Alas, “The Vagrant” is not a Vanillaware game, and that studio has still shown no inclination to port their games to PC (or any platform besides PlayStation, for that matter). However, with O.T.K.’s work on “The Vagrant,” we’re seeing the first true attempt at making a spiritual successor to titles like “Odin Sphere” and “Muramasa: The Demon Blade” from a different development team – quite literally, as all of the O.T.K. team has cited Vanillaware as their main inspiration. And while it would be natural to assume a team of three Chinese guys knocking-off Japanese games would come across as cheap copycats (like most Chinese imitation products), Wang, Rong, and Liu actually seem to care about the games they make and have a grasp on traditional game design principles that the mobile-and-freemium-riddled Chinese market usually doesn’t.

Presentation
“The Vagrant” is built primarily using two tools: The Unreal Engine from Epic Games and the Creature animation suite from a company called Deep Motion. The developers have expressed in an interview that they perceived a glut of pixel art Indie games and wanted to really double-down on the ‘painterly’ style of their inspiration, Vanillaware. Combining these two software suites, O.T.K. was able to do a remarkable job of animating hand-painted backdrops, characters, and monsters, though there is still some room for improvement. While the individual art assets all look phenomenal and are bursting with style and character, there’s a noteworthy lack of animation frames most of the time, leading to gorgeous characters and monsters that move somewhat choppily. There’s also a bit of an odd quirk with the Unreal Engine in “The Vagrant” which causes brief white lines to appear in the game’s backgrounds, as the various individual art panels load. None of these minor criticisms are deal breakers, and I trust that O.T.K.’s animation skills will only improve with practice.

Audiowise, “The Vagrant” clearly takes inspiration from another source, that being Konami’s ‘Castlevania’ series, with its rock/gothic fusion soundtracks. “The Vagrant’s” soundtrack is compact, but excellent. Beyond music, the game’s use of sound effects is incredibly well-done, and in lieu of full voice acting, NPCs will typically utter a few syllables to accompany a text box, oddly enough in Japanese.

Technically, “The Vagrant” is sound. It includes native Xinput support out of the box – indeed, there’s a splash screen before the title which states that a controller is ‘recommended’ – and is generally a polished crash-and-glitch-free experience. There are only a few cosmetic oddities, such as a useless mouse cursor that appears on some screens, and the fact that the title screen default selection doesn’t change from “New Game” to “Load Game” when a save file is detected, but both of those can simply be brushed off as rookie mistakes.

Story
The titular vagrant is a young, buxom woman named Vivian who lives the wandering homeless life of a sellsword, due, in large part, to her family’s curse. Vivian is a Runewarden, a special type of no-talent-required magic-user who is able to channel minor arcane abilities due to magical runes inscribed on her skin. Of course, in a bit of social commentary, Runewardens are vehemently hunted down and persecuted by the Academy of Magic, due to runesmithing’s democratizing ability to give power to anyone, not just the elite few with the inborn talent for magic.

In her life’s aimless wanderings, Vivian stumbles across a small village where a local girl hires her to help her elope with her boyfriend, a boy whom her family hates. Vivian agrees, but quickly finds the boy’s body impaled on a boundary stone. Innocent blood spilled across a boundary stone negates its warding abilities, thus Vivian rushes back to the village to find it under attack by a demon and an army of undead.

After a valiant battle, Vivian is about to succumb to defeat when a traveling Academy mage named Holborn appears, with her apprentice in tow, and banishes the demon. With its dying breath, the demon curses Holborn to become its new vessel.

Holding back the curse, Holborn sends Vivian and her youthful apprentice to retrieve a magical artifact that can break the demon’s curse and re-sanctify the boundary stone. Thus the player and Vivian go on a romp through a desolate world, discovering the ruins of a fallen civilization, learning more about the nature of curses, and learning never to trust an Academy mage before learning the fate of Vivian’s family and delving into the depths of the underworld itself.

“The Vagrant” has plenty of dialog and text-based cutscenes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the writing was very good and the translation was nearly perfect, with just the occasional typo here and there.

Really, the only criticism I have of the game from a story perspective is that the pacing can feel quite rushed. “The Vagrant” is not a terribly long game, clocking in at around 15 hours for an inexperienced playthrough, with another 5 hours or so to clean up the achievement list. The narrative rolls along at a nice brisk pace, but somewhat abruptly transitions to the endgame when it feels like it could have fleshed out the world a bit more.

“The Vagrant” also has multiple endings. While earning the True Ending is accomplished through a sane and discoverable series of side quests, getting the Bad Endings unintuitively involves intentionally losing to a number of the game’s bosses.

Gameplay
“The Vagrant” was directly inspired by Vanillaware titles like “Odin Sphere” and “Dragon’s Crown,” according to the dev team themselves. Thus, it’s got sidescrolling and Beat ‘em Up mechanics at its core. But it’s clear, even though they’ve never said it in an interview, that “The Vagrant” was also inspired by ‘Igavania’ style ‘Castlevania’ games due to the structure of interconnected game world and fast travel system that allows Vivian to instantly move between any discovered save points.

The Beat ‘em Up gameplay at the core of “The Vagrant” feels fairly basic for most of the game. Vivian can launch a chain of light attacks and end the combo with a heavy attack, or just launch one slow heavy attack after another. She can also discover ancient tablets that teach special moves, which consume Rage, a resource tracked by a meter right under Vivian’s health meter. The problem with these Rage skills is that for the vast majority of the game, Vivian doesn’t have enough Rage and doesn’t accumulate it quickly enough to make these skills relevant. By the end game, or in a New Game+ run on a higher difficulty, Rage skills are much more viable and interesting, but a fully-upgraded Vivian with end game gear is so much more powerful than pretty much anything in New Game+ that the basic combo will mow through common enemies, while only a handful of the Rage skills are useful against bosses or in specific situations. One Rage skill that seems like it would be more important than it actually is allows Vivian to thrust into the air, gaining more height, even after a double jump. But it’s ultimately not all that useful, because the map is designed to be navigated without that skill except for one key area.

Aside from combat basics, Vivian gains two mobility skills throughout the game. The first is a double jump, while the other is a dodge maneuver that can be used either on the ground or in the air. This mobility combined with the game’s combo and Rage based combat combine to feel nice and responsive.

“The Vagrant” employs a variety of upgrade systems that allow the player to make Vivian more powerful. First, by collecting mana from defeated enemies or environmental breakables, the player can unlock skills on a star-shaped skill tree. Some of the branches on this tree are locked by the acquisition of a specific item from a specific treasure chest, but most are available from the outset… but farming enough mana to really make headway with the skill tree is a decidedly end game activity (there’s even a special Mana Skeleton in the final area who drops 10,000 and can be killed over and over with little difficulty).

Vivian can also equip a variety of weapons and armor that drop semi-randomly from treasure chests, environmental objects, and slain enemies. Make no mistake, “The Vagrant” isn’t a ‘Diablo’-style Hack ‘n Slash, as the amount of in-game loot is incredibly small and the influence of the RNG is minimal. Each weapon Vivian discovers has a different swing speed, which is unfortunately not noted anywhere in the items’ stats or descriptions. Common weapon and armor types each have a small range for their main ATK or DEF stat, but those hardly come into play, even for Min/Max-ers, because the best items in the game have 100% fixed stats that are always identical. Outside of weapons and armor, Vivian can equip a single accessory, with effects ranging from increased gold or mana drops to single-stat boosts, to flat damage reduction.

Weapons and armor usually don’t come with their full potential unlocked. Thus each one can be upgraded (by spending mana) to a maximum rank of 5, where each piece will have its maximum stats and four enchantment slots for runes. Yeah, we finally got to Runewarden-ing! There are a large variety of runes which can be inscribed on either weapon or armor, with no restriction. These runes, like the weapons and armor themselves, come in 5 possible quality ranks, but can’t be upgraded. They can, however, be overwritten if the player finds a better version of a run they’re using or decides to go with a different rune altogether. Armor runes also provide some very important access to protection from status ailments like poison, though these come far too late in the game, and, as far as I can tell, there are only runes that offer protection from poison and petrification, but not paralysis, freezing, or the incredibly-annoying burning ailments.

Exploring the world of “The Vagrant” in search of treasure and truth is generally an enjoyable experience. The world map is well laid-out, with some interesting connections between rooms that hide sneaky secrets. There’s also an always-accessible map that shows the player where they’ve been and where they’re supposed to go. However, this map does have a couple annoying downsides. First, while entering the menus to change equipment pauses the game, opening the map doesn’t. Second, the map doesn’t keep track of discovered, but unopened treasure chests, which is unfortunate, considering there are Gold Chests scattered around the entire game that must be opened with Gold Keys, since smashing them open will damage the items inside (read: give the player some money and potions instead of weapons, armor, accessories, and runes). Gold Keys are generally acquired from running ‘Rifts,’ that is, repeatable combat gauntlets or boss variants that cost gold to enter and provide a chest full of random loot at the end (and are much less efficient than grinding the Mana Skeleton).

Overall
Half Vanillaware and half Igavania, “The Vagrant” is an inexpensive Chinese Indie game that feels much more like an homage to its inspirations than a cheap knock-off. As a Vanillaware fan dating back to the PlayStation 2 era, I found “The Vagrant” to be just as enjoyable and authentic as the real thing, which is a real testament to the team at O.T.K. Games. Of course, even genuine Vanillaware games tend to have some slightly rough edges, and “The Vagrant” has them too, ranging from the slightly-too-brief and slightly-too-rushed runtime to some minor gameplay balance issues. Still, this is a very well-done first effort, and I look forward to seeing what O.T.K. can come up with in the future.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 4/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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