Vessel is a unique indie puzzle-platformer from an ambitious start-up group known as Strange Loop Games. Like all great puzzle-platformers, Vessel takes a central mechanic, water in this case, and expands upon the possibilities with each new puzzle. Combine that with a great art style, excellent soundtrack, and a delightful steampunk setting, and Vessel is an indie winner you should definitely play.
Vessel centers around a lone inventor, whose name is only revealed on the official Strange Loop site as M. Arkwright, who has completely revolutionized the labor industry. He has created a series of devices that can animate water and other liquids into an adaptable worker known as a Fluro. Fluros are mindless, quick, expendable, and easy to produce, thus becoming the dominant labor force in this steampunk world. The story begins with Arkwright attempting to construct his next big invention when a Fluro accidentally locks him out of the lab, kicking off an adventure in which Arkwright, and the player, explores the limits of Fluro adaptation and evolution.
The graphics and art style are, for obvious reasons, the first really striking elements of the game. Strange Loop has done an excellent job of creating a living steampunk setting, a style too often ignored by games. The awesome liquid, the incredible machinery designs, and the vague 3D look to the 2D graphics all combine to create a very cool looking world for your stoic inventor to traverse. The water effects (which are in now way realistic, but still look very cool) are particularly well done. Better yet, the water simulation serves to support the gameplay as well, leading to the central mechanic of the game: liquid.
There’s a wide variety of liquid puzzles that come into play, both in the environment and within the Fluro workers. While at first you’re limited to puzzles involving water and basic Fluros, the learning curve ratchets up very quickly. The base Fluros are simply mindless creatures who race towards any button that needs pressing. Obviously, this makes them well-suited towards labor, but can also lead to unintentional side effects, causing much of the chaos in the later levels of the game. To complicate things, there are several evolutions of Fluros that don’t quite have the same work ethic as Arkwright’s initial prototypes, as well as Fluros that have adapted to other, less benign liquids, like lava.
One of the biggest requirements for a good puzzle-platformer is a forgiving learning curve, and Vessel does not disappoint. While the beginning of the game simply takes place in your lab, you’ll visit a variety of workplaces in which Fluros have started to run amok. Each new area introduces new tools to play around with, slowly cranking up the difficulty at a perfect pace. At the beginning, you’re completely helpless. Not too far in, you get a water hose and backpack. Later, you start to get seeds that can be activated by Fluros simply spraying them. Later, your water tank is upgraded with new liquids and new kinds of seeds. Each upgrade takes a concept that was incredibly difficult or limited and makes it extremely easy. To make up for this relative convenience, the game makes the puzzles more complex and less obvious. By the end of the game, you’ll have the tools to do almost anything, but the game remains challenging and engaging.
There are extra-challenging hidden puzzles as well, which grant you protoplasm. Protoplasm is a completely unknown energy source that can be used to enhance your water tank and hose nozzles. This adds some useful upgrades, like a bigger tank and longer range for your default nozzle, but the vast majority of the nozzles are fairly useless. There’s a nozzle that fires three times as much water as normal, a nozzle that fires a ball of water that explodes, a shotgun-like nozzle and so on. Since there is next to zero combat in the game, most of these nozzles are excessive. Sure, sometimes you need to cool off a whole bunch of lava at once, but ultimately, there are very few times that you would want to use a different nozzle. It seems like Strange Loop had this upgrade system, but couldn’t really fill it with enough goodies to make it worthwhile. Of course, this is just one small element and doesn’t detract from the game in any way. It is just a system that fizzles out and makes itself unnecessary in the end.
Even when you’re not solving new puzzles and grabbing new gear, the game is still impressive by incorporating big, cool set pieces. There are lots of memorable travelling moments that are just impressive to look at, like travelling through caves on a zip line, riding a massive gondola, or running along gigantic and dangerous conveyer belts. It’s pretty clear Strange Loop is just incorporating spectacle to show off the physics simulation, but it looks awesome and definitely helps to make the environments feel spaced out and giant. While it doesn’t look realistic in the sense that architects don’t incorporate logic puzzles in their blueprints, it does look realistic in the sense of a factory or workplace that once functioned perfectly, but has gone completely out of control.
The game does need a bit of work in terms of minor bugs. The only game breaking bug encountered was a bit of scenery that you can get stuck in, but restarting the puzzle fixed it quickly. However, Strange Loop has uploaded at least one patch while this title was being reviewed, so hopefully they plan to fix the outstanding issues. Overall, the game is very well polished.
If you’re a fan of puzzle-platformers, Vessel is about as good as they get. With fun mechanics, great graphics, and excellent puzzles, Vessel manages to be an all-around impressive title. You can get it on Steam, but you can also buy it on the developer’s site to get a DRM-free version in addition to a Steam key. Vessel is also planned for release on XBLA and PSN for now, so keep an eye out for it if you mainly stick to consoles. If you’re a PC gamer, you should definitely check out the demo on Steam now.
[xrr rating=9/10, max_stars=10]
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam version of Vessel, provided by Strange Loop Games.