I hate the term grimdark. It sounds to me like a word made up by a goth kid with a traumatic brain injury who’s re-learning how to speak, but what do I know: here we are, talking about Vagrus: The Riven Realms.
Steam’s been trying to get me to buy this game for a few days now, and I think Valve is mining my blog history because, aside from the obvious non-sci-fi nature of the project, Vagrus checks all the boxes mentioned in my semi-comprehensive if a little vague post asking for recommendations on lo-fi, in-depth games that I might have missed. Now, I’m going to do my best to wield some self-restraint here, because although I’ve only played the demo version of this game, there’s a lot to talk about. I’ll try and hit the high-points.
How It Started
So in this very Earth-like world, we had a civilization that was very Romanesque, ruling a vast kingdom and doing pretty well until they started getting full of themselves. This lead to an abuse of power resulting in violent expansion, corruption, and other…eh…well, Romanesque behaviors. The gods, wanting to issue a correction on this, nuked the planet, killing most everyone, and putting a stop to the no-goodness. But even gods make mistakes, and rather than say “oops!” and help humanity get back on its feet, they decided to yeet themselves out of this dimension with nary a “stay fresh, cheese bags!”. This allowed some Real Bad Dudes From A Different Dimension to slip into the god-shaped hole and take charge of things. Considering most of humanity was dead, and of those that survived, some/many/most of them were either horribly mutated into monsters or were exhibiting varying levels of magic-like abilities, the world of Vagrus is the epitome of “grimdark” (ugh).
How It’s Going
You play as a vagrus, which sounds a lot like “vagrant” or “vagabond”, which is pretty much what you are. You lead a comitatus, which is a large-group caravan that moves goods around the blasted hellscape. Unlike your traditional D&D caravan that players abhor escorting, this caravan is packed full of lizard-like beasts of burden and is populated by slaves, workers, scouts, and fighters. You also have a company of “companions”, NPCs who have back-stories, sheets that you can use to improve the character, and who take part in one of the combat portions of the game on your behalf.
The demo (available on Steam) showcases a journey between the town of Scrapheap and the city of Avernum. Being close to bankruptcy, you have one last shot at making a lucrative deal to move scrap metal (a hot commodity in the game’s shit economy), but everything comes with a hitch, of course. Once you get to Avernum, the demo ends.
In order to get to Avernum (and points beyond) you have a certain number of movement points that you can spend per day, and once they are gone, you have to camp. Each leg of the journey takes a specific number of MP, and each node you move into might trigger an event, whether it’s combat, a discovery, or — more often than not — a story beat.
See, Vagrus: The Retail Game has two modes. First, there’s the story mode. The demo gives a bit of a taste of this mode, which I’ve already outlined. Here you mainly move about in order to achieve goals and move the story to the next stage. Second, there’s sandbox mode, which I did not try, but which I assume unlocks the map to allow free-roaming (still node-based, though) and lets you find your own way in the world. In both cases, you’ll have to stock your caravan not only with goods to sell at your destination, but also all of the materials that you’ll need to survive the journey, whether that’s food and supplies, more soldiers or slaves, or equipment to upgrade your caravan.
Know now that Vagrus is very heavy into story. In fact, you might look at some of the screenshots of the game and believe that it’s a visual novel, but without the usual visuals in such games. The story beats and journey interruptions are presented in hardcore prose, and often allow you to choose responses from several options. Some options are always available, some will only be available if you have “prior knowledge” gained through other events or conversations, and some will only be available if you have certain skills or companions. Some conversation options perform skill checks that you can pass or fail. If you prefer to have your story in cut-scenes, I’m sorry…I should have warned you sooner. You can find the exit at the front of the auditorium. For everyone else, don your reading glasses and get comfortable.
Companion combat (at least one version of it presented in the demo) is turn based and operates very much like Star Traders or Darkest Dungeon in that you have your side on the left and the enemies on the right. There’s two rows, front and back, and everyone rolls initiative. Your companions fight for you, and each has skills and abilities that they can use to fight. Being a rogue-like in a grimdark setting (a vein on my forehead starts to throb every time I have to write that word), when a companion falls in battle they can be revived, but none of them can be healed. Healing only happens after combat, and then slowly, and generally in camp at the end of the day, or possibly in cities and towns. There is no direct “long rest”-style healing in this game, so panic and dread are baked into the source code. Apparently there’s another combat form, but where you throw your caravan retainers against similarly stacked opponents, but the demo didn’t include this mode so I only know about it from the videos on the Steam store page.
Vagrus: The Riven Realms comes with a pretty heavy gravity, and despite my distaste for the term, I feel that it does this “grimdark” thing much better than traditional examples of the genre which rely on the already grim and dark settings like the “nu-Transylvania aesthetic” of Darkest Dungeons. The voice-over prologue lays out the shitstorm that set the world on its current course, and I think that helps set the tone very well. Thankfully, the writing is top-notch, and it would have to be in order to support the conceit that everything is carried forward through prose. The artwork that is used is very well done, appropriately grungy, and is generally aligned with the text to punctuate the current location, or provides NPC portraits in menus and paper-dolls in combat, or is the appropriately blasted and scarred map that you travel through. Still, Vagrus’s narrative never felt oppressive; it’s not a happy place, to be certain, but it’s also not a story that makes me wish there was a way to just drive my comitatus off a cliff and save everyone the agony of another day in this shit hole.
I am now mulling over whether I want to buy the full game or not. Reviews on Steam say that although the map looks large, it’s artifically so and most of it exists purely for “aesthetic reasons”. Maybe DLC, though, so I don’t know. Although there are two difficulty settings, the “normal” setting is pure rogue-like, and even my limited time with the demo proves that the game is not merciful. I am easily dissuaded from continuing in video games when I fail too often, and stressing about choices and biting-nails is not how I want to relax. However, I worry that the “easier” mode completely negates the spirit of the game. I suspect that I will eventually buy it, though I might wait and see if it ends up on sale this holiday season even though it’s only $29.99USD