Review: Vessel

Vessel

Further populating the Earth with well done side-scrolling games, Strange Loop Games has brought unto the public its creation Vessel. Arkwright is an inventor who has formulated a method of creating watermen called Fluros.  Built with the goal of reducing the amount of repetitive work in the world, or destroying jobs depending on one’s viewpoint, these beings are capable of independent action and are comprised of any liquid they happen to be near.  In a Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like fashion, the Fluros get out of control and dogmatically go about tasks, causing chaos in a huge factory, and other areas, hopping on platforms and pressure plates all willy-nilly.  Either as an interested party in local operations or a man worried about any potential liability on his part for negligently designing the waterguys, Arkwright sets out on a journey to make things right.

Within this world, setting things right consists primarily of moving from one room to the next.  The overall goal is not exciting, the way in which it is accomplished is.  To bring the world back to the realm of efficiency, Arkwright must either open a gate in a room or return a machine to complete functionality.  In gameplay terms, what this means is that certain switches, pressure plates and levers will have to be manipulated or various chambers filled with certain kinds of liquid or steam.  To assist in this, he will strap a tank on his back fitted with a hose that can suck up watery substances to spit out on command, very similar to the Delfinoian FLUDD, just not as chatty.  Also helping the quest for efficiency are the Fluros themselves.  Some are wandering around the environment and others are created whenever Arkwright pulls a Seed out of his pocket, which looks like a big creepy eye, and throws it into a body of fluid large enough to make it coalesce into a Fluro. 

The game sets it up as though the different species have a set pattern of behavior. Some will run after the tinkerer and others are supposed to be switch happy, always pressing on any unactivated mechanism.  I found this to, at times, be inconsistent as a Fluro might just stand still doing nothing or move in an unexpected way.  Most of the time they do what they are supposed to do, making them automated tools to operate remote mechanisms or move to a certain spot, only to have their not-a-solid-not-a-gas bodies crushed by our hero to have their juices run down into a sluice chamber or otherwise mix with some liquid beneath a grate to interact with some contraption that bars progress.  Usually the Fluros do what they are supposed to, but on the rare occasions when they do not, it can be annoying to have to create new ones or restart the puzzle until everything works.

Eventually it is even possible to get upgrades for the world’s most versatile wet-vac.  Different nozzles lead to different ways to attack problems, but are hardly the stuff children’s dreams are made of (“You saved up and got the broad nozzle?!?! No way! I’ll bet that gets things wet super quick while sacrificing distance.  Now that sprayer is way more versatile!”). In order to unlock these, Arkwright will have to find globs of silver liquid just floating around, typically hidden out of sight somewhere, and cash them in at what is basically an upgrade store.  Often these CCs of quicksilver are the reward for completing optional challenges, but sometimes they are just hard to find.  This does add some incentive to replay certain areas of the game, but it would have been nice if there were some way in game to get a general sense of where these collectibles are located.

All the liquid in the game looks good and some of it even affects the lighting of the area.  As the Fluros are comprised of this same liquid, it is a shame that the camera often will pull back such that it is usually difficult to see the internal physics of these liquid automatons.  It makes the situation easier to assess certainly, it just doesn’t showcase the subtle movements in the bodies of the creatures.  The main character himself is poorly animated.  He has no reactions to the world around him; when he dies he sort of just falls to the ground.  Pointing the water gun in a given direction only causes him to throw his arm/nozzle that way, but he doesn’t look at or react to any of the results for adding factory juice where once there was none.  In most side-scrolling games this is not that big of an issue, but when the character is a person with a face more detailed than Mega Man’s two eye dots and a line mouth, it looks odd for him to gaze at things without any perceivable emotion or reaction.  The blue bomber at least reacted to getting hurt, but the same cannot be said for the hero in Vessel

The real showpieces here are the various rooms that the deadpan man will explore.  Huge gears and vats of molten ore will impress players with the grand scope of some of the mechanisms at play.  Most of the settings and backgrounds are nicely detailed, yet not so much that they distract players from the clear and discrete moving parts of the game world that are interactive or necessary to solve the problem at hand.  One might pull back from the fiction and ask how anyone gets any work done in places with such a complicated layout where problem after problem has to be solved to move on, but then one would have to question the believability of just about any place in a two dimensional game.  A mild electronic soundtrack is a good accompaniment to the cerebral nature of the game and does not distract while thinking about what levers and activators need to be pulled while different sprays and Fluros are being used.

If there is any problem with the game I would point to it is that the world feels unconnected.  Ostensibly, the progression of Vessel can be likened to that of Metroid or Shadow Complex in that it is a large, vertically sliced world of connected rooms and corridors.  In most of these styles of games the hero will blast, whip or otherwise eliminate enemies in a given space, here players will primarily be solving puzzles.  Choosing to eschew the obscure, difficult to track/remember “a door has opened somewhere” style of worldwide puzzle solving in favor of smaller obstacles, the puzzle-meat of the rooms is largely separate.  A menu feature allows players to jump around from puzzle room to puzzle room, avoiding the completely forgettable traversal if a place has already been found.  As a result, Vessel tries to convince players it is more than a menu with selections for Puzzle 1, Puzzle 2, etc., but it is not more than this.  The traversal and exploration parts of the game, critical to Metroid and its kin, are almost completely absent and what is there feels like filler.  I appreciate a desire to add context to all the valve pulling and twisting, but when it falls flat it detracts from the experience.

Another issue is that the few times any sort of precise jumping is required, the controls can readily be seen as lacking.  There were a few spots that required avoiding deadly traps by jumping at the last possible second and sticking the landing, but the little guy would sluggishly miss either one of these components and a checkpoint respawn would be my reward.  The controls work well enough to solve basic puzzles, jump around a little or guide liquids, but nothing more.  I used a wired Xbox 360 controller to play the game, which seems to be the default and preferred method, which worked just fine.  What did not work just fine was any movement more complicated than provocatively moving the little man back and forth to eventually squirt liquid into the face of things.  Thankfully there are relatively few instances where the level designer thought he could successfully make a 2D Super Mario Sunshine

These small detractions aside, Vessel is a well made puzzle game with light platforming elements.  It is not, however, well suited to long play sessions.  Unlike Portal or Q.U.B.E., other games which are the same in structure and essential level progression, there is not enough character or visual amazement to drive players to keep playing until there are no more wet puzzles to be conquered.  This game feels like one well made puzzle after another and nothing more.  Even the Professor Layton games, which are really only a collection of puzzles, have the charm and character to make players want to go on for more than additional puzzles.  People that do not necessarily like problem solving in their spare time can get something out of the other games I have mentioned because of the puzzle-trappings, the bread of the riddle sandwich.  It is almost as if the other aspects of these games have enough sugar on them to make people forget they are using their brain and not getting paid for it (bitter medicine, indeed).  There is no sugar here.  The great environments are a half-packet of artificial sweetener to people that like good art direction.  To those who like coming up with logical solutions, I would say buy this game.  If you are reading this and thinking “I am not sure problem solving is enough for me” and $15 is an uncomfortable amount of money for you to splurge, then you might want to wait until it goes on sale or is part of an inevitable indie bundle.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Good use of liquid physics
+ Highly detailed environments

Cons:
- Movement controls are sluggish
- Not much of a world beyond levers and water

Game Info:
Platform: PC (also in development for consoles)
Publisher: Strange Loop Games
Developer: Strange Loop Games
Release Date: 3/1/2012
Genre: Puzzle-Platformer
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.