Think about your favourite video games. Have you ever wondered why they’re your favourites? We’re sure that you can think of a sea of reasons, but we’d like to point out one that likely applies to each title on your mind: flow. The greatest adventures are typically the ones with brilliant ideas in every area wrapped in an immaculately smooth experience. In other words, they’re excursions that have you completely engrossed in their worlds and in sync with their gameplay because there are no technical issues to break the immersion. So, does Vessel keep its head above water and float alongside the medium’s greatest releases – or does it take on water and sink below its vast potential?
Our story begins with a visual history of a man ahead of his time. M. Arkwright may look dishevelled and even a bit dense, but he’s a scientist and an inventor who found a way to turn liquid into living machines called ‘Fluros’. He designed them to perform basic labour more efficiently than humans, so he sold them to businesses from all over. However, something went wrong. Fluros are beginning to malfunction everywhere, causing factories to stop production, plantations to cease farming, and mines to halt excavating. With a new invention that allows him to deploy Fluros at nearly any moment, Arkwright sets out to bring his creations back to life, but he isn’t prepared for what he’ll discover along the way…
Strange Loop Games’ first indie title Vessel has a solid yet simple narrative that further evolves with detailed journal entries by Arkwright, and we’re happy to report that it’s a wonderful complement to what this game is all about: the liquid and physics-based gameplay. You’re introduced to the basic mechanics right away, but what’s really interesting is that the title teaches you how everything works with visual hints and by encouraging you to experiment. As we played for the first hour, this puzzle platformer gave us a great sense of discovery. You’ll travel to different locales that are divided into multiple puzzle stages, and they’ll have your brain cranking.
For starters, you have an arsenal of portable “seeds” that create Fluros with different traits. At first you’ll have one that draws them to large buttons which can open doors or turn on a machine. Later on, you’ll receive a seed that makes a Fluro chase after you, another that drives one to search for and absorb the liquid that it’s composed of, and more. Speaking of liquids, there’s quite a collection of them. Besides water, there’s lava and oddities like red goo, blue goo, and green, glowing slime. They even interact with one another to varying effects, but we’d be spoiling the fun if we told you what they were.
To dispatch the Fluro seeds, you’ll use your portable fluid container and hose, which can be upgraded with different nozzles. You’ll need to use this trusty pipe to solve puzzles, by figuring out which way to direct a Fluro’s path. The game is perfectly paced in introducing you to all of these varying liquids and Fluro seeds, which constantly add new levels of depth and variety to the gameplay. This ensures that the title doesn’t get stale or repetitive for a second, and Vessel nails this on the head with its wonderfully distinct, difficult puzzles.
Unfortunately, the game is not without fault, and there are technical problems that must be noted. While the game engine is impressive in how it simulates gravity and liquid behaviour, we noticed that it's a little rough around the edges. The platforming is a bit finicky, liquids act odd on occasion, and some important objects in the environment react too strongly to the slightest of movements. However, what irritated us the most was the artificial intelligence in several puzzles. Most of the time, you’ll rely on the Fluros if you’ve ascertained the method to solve a specific conundrum, but we encountered a few instances where they simply wouldn’t perform their assigned function at first. We also experienced several moments where everything started moving in slow motion when too much was happening on-screen, which caused some temporary latency issues as well. It slowed down our progress in finishing some puzzles, but this is an understandable issue considering the stress that the engine must bear for this indie title.
Still, these issues don’t detract from the excellent graphics and art direction. The game takes place in a steampunk world, evident by the rampant, gear-based machinery that surrounds you. You’ll see this and all of the lovely aesthetics with beautiful and cartoony pseudo-3D visuals in an industrial factory, underground mines, and a breathtaking orchard with vibrant plant life, mountainous vistas, and giant windmills in the watercolour-like background. What’s also impressive is that environmental elements can be seen in the foreground, giving the world a greater sense of depth and realism, which Trine 2: Complete Story notably did so well. And while Arkwright’s stiff and wacky animation is oddly at contrast with the smooth movement of the Fluros and machinery, there’s hardly anything to complain about here.
The audio is no exception either, being surprisingly thorough and detailed. The sound effects of Arkwright’s footsteps change over what must be over a dozen different surfaces; the clanging and grinding of metal-on-metal makes the machines feel like firm, powerful presences. There may be no voice acting, but the developer sure has a good taste in music. A fitting assortment of electronica and ambient tracks by Jon Hopkins from his Insides album supplement the game very well, ranging from being harsh and beat-driven to soothing and ethereal.
In the end, you’re likely to invest 10 hours into this fairly priced package, but if you’re raring to collect all of the mysterious ‘protoplasm’ (which unlocks the upgrades to your equipment) in every hidden area and bonus puzzle stage, then you’ll probably procure another two to three hours of play time. While all of the upgrades themselves aren’t necessary to complete the game, trying out the extra puzzles and earning more Trophies are fair enough reasons to squeeze all of the value out of this game.
Vessel is a lot like Portal. It’s a title that introduces a new kind of puzzle solving gameplay coupled with thoughtful, varied levels, an appealing setting with commendable graphics, realistic sound effects, and a great mix of electronica and ambient songs. While a few technical issues hold back the game’s waterfall of brilliance like a small dam, you still won’t want to miss out on the creativity streaming from this pretty pitcher.