Physics based 2D puzzle platformer. There, I just described about a billion  different titles within the Indie scene. I mean, I can’t be the only one who’s feeling a little burnt-out on these things by now, right? At this point if you’re gonna make a game that so neatly fits such a generic description, it better damn well do something quite special if it wants anyone to even give it a second thought. So thankfully for the people over at Strange Loop Games (and my own sanity), Vessel more than manages to justify its own existence through innovation, visual appeal and some classy audio.
You play genius inventor Arkwright, whose claim to fame is the creation of “Fluros” a series of liquid based machines that now serve as manual labour in various industries across the land. The rest of the “story” is delivered through very short journal entries that, for the most part, have very little relevance on the gameplay. Most of the time the entries just boil down to “Whoa, looks like malfunctioning Fluros are totally messin’ up [industrial location] real good. Perhaps I should mosey on over and sort that shizzle out!”. For a little while it felt like this simple tale was about to get suddenly rather serious out of the blue, but sadly such a u-turn never materialised until (literally) the last minute. It’s no real biggie though, as the core gameplay more than makes up for any perceived lack of narrative.
The puzzles mainly revolve around manipulating the different types of Fluro, whose particular brand of OCD behaviour is determined by what liquid their body is comprised of and what kind of Fluro “Seed” was used in their inception. For example, one type of Fluro might have a thing for obsessively pushing every button it can find, while another type will relentlessly hunt you down to the ends of the earth so it can deliver a body slam to your head. Both of these examples can be adorably harmless when made out of water, or terrifyingly un-harmless when comprised of molten lava.
In most cases you’re tasked with using the Fluro’s predictable behaviour to “trick” them into activating mechanisms that open up a path to the next puzzle or unlock some new puzzle solving equipment. With the exception of a few unnecessarily confusing sections, I’d say the difficulty level of these tasks is fairly average. They’re *just* difficulty enough to make finishing them feel like an accomplishment, but not so much so that you’ll be stuck on the same one for hours on end. Even if you do run into trouble, most of the challenges can be figured out after a bit of whimsical experimentation.
There’s a bit of platforming going on too, but 90% of the time it takes a backseat to puzzle solving. This is largely for the best, as it’s easily Vessel’s weakest and most frustrating aspect by far. Throughout my playthrough the controls often felt very imprecise and awkward, resulting in far more untimely deaths that I would have liked (i.e. any). Now add to that the fact poor little Arkwright can’t take so much as a larva Fluro to the face before booting you back to a loading screen and you’ve got yourself a less than compelling platformer experience.
You’re gonna have to put up with it for a good while though, as Vessel is exceptionally long by Indie standards, clocking in at roughly 7-8 hours for a full completion. Obviously as it’s a puzzle game, that length of time could be significantly longer or shorter depending on where your IQ sits. However even if you’re a puzzle prodigy, Vessel should provide you with a fairly significant amount of content to consume. Admittedly a lot of the environments do recycle the same core elements over and over, but they all get re-arranging in such a way that I never felt like I was solving the same puzzle twice. The only parts that really felt like unnecessary padding where the rather useless upgrades, whose only purpose seems to be acting as carrots-on-a-stick for finding the games ubiquitous hidden collectables (YAY!) that unlock them.
Even if the brain teasers don’t quite click with you, I hope you’ll at least be able able to appreciate the lush visuals that make up Vessel’s steam-punk world. It’s a never ending sea of gorgeous whirring gears and bronze pipes, all presented with a very liberal usage of parallax scrolling that gives the game an almost 3D appearance, yet manages to avoid the usual background/foreground confusion that plagues other games with a similar art direction. The liquid physics that govern the puzzle solving are also rather wondrous to behold in their own right. I honestly had a lot of fun just watching the physics engine get to work while I was messing around with it. That is, doin’ stuff like trying to fill the whole screen up with water or seeing how many Fluros I could make before my PC started throwing a hissy fit (spoilers: a lot!). There is however one little issue with the game’s visuals that sticks out like a sore thumb: Arkwright’s animations are exceptionally crude, especially when he’s interacting with the games many cranks and levers. If anything, it reminds me more of low budget flash games rather than something I’d otherwise want to put alongside Braid or Limbo.
While there’s sadly no voice acting in Vessel, the game does features an absolutely stellar soundtrack by Coldplay collaborator Jon Hopkins (thanks
procrastination Wikipedia!) full of smooth yet funky synth jams that dynamically change depending on what’s going on in the game world. I know this gets said way too often in reviews but…. this soundtrack’s probably worth getting even without the game part! There’s also a few sound effects worthy of praise too, like the soft “clunk” when you accidently headbut the ceiling or the strangely soothing sound of Arkwright’s footsteps on a wooden floor echoing down a hallway.
In all, Vessel is a unique, fun puzzle game that has the misfortune to be part of a catastrophically over-crowded scene. I’m not entirely convinced it’ll be something we’re still talking about a few months down the road, but if you’re not totally fatigued by these kinds of games just yet, then it’s more than worth your time to check this one out. I know that £12 might seem a little bit pricey for an indie game these days, but given Vessel’s rather hefty duration and distinctive brand of puzzle solving, I’d say it’s more than earned that price point.
Vessel is currently available for £12 on Steam.
Fun liquid physics.
Great music and sound effects.
Messed character animations.
Poor platforming elements.