Developer: Strange Loop Games
"Vessel is a truly superior puzzler and one of 2012's biggest indie hitters. More impressively, though, it's also destined to be one of the very best games of the year, period. Quality, quantity, innovation and competence abound, making for an essential PC purchase. Get involved and ensure that this surprise success story becomes a sleeper hit." - Vessel Review, 9/10, March 2012
They say that empty vessels make the most noise, and perhaps the reverse is also true. Despite being a true modern indie classic in this reviewer's opinion, Vessel never received the mainstream recognition lauded on many of its peers, instead quietly languishing on Steam and participating an the occasional bundle. The masterful liquid platform-puzzler failed to materialise on either PSN or XBLA, following two years of delays and an arduous porting effort from Overbyte, who had to lock horns with a bespoke engine and complex fluid modelling that even relatively beefy PCs found taxing back in 2012.
Mission accomplished. Vessel is now available on PS3 for a brand new audience, and we're going to give it some fanfare. Since we've already reviewed the game in detail and the PS3 port is 100% feature complete, we'll keep things snappy.
M. Arkwright really is a clever chap. This maverick inventor revolutionised industry by creating Fluros: devices that can animate any liquid into robotic automatons capable of fulfilling simple tasks. Now that the world has an inexhaustible supply of tireless labour, he's free to sit back and enjoy his success... at least until an uncharacteristically mischievous Fluro locks him out of his lab and kickstarts an epic adventure through the bowels of his own production plants. What follows is 12-15 hours of sublime puzzling, in which you'll utilise the differing properties of various types of fluid to overcome increasingly complex physics-based challenges. Wetter is better.
As a 2.5D platformer, you'll marshal the basics fairly quickly. Arkwright is a limber fellow, sprinting, running and grabbing around the levels, interacting with levers, pulleys and other physical contrivances with his own body weight. Early puzzles ease you into the swing of things -- a pressure plate here, a mechanised zip line there -- but then Vessel starts to flow. Literally.
See, Vessel's robust fluid modelling isn't just for show, since utilise several varieties of liquid in surprising ways. Water can naturally be poured between receptacles to apply weight or pressure... but can you make it flow uphill?! It'll boil when it hits lava, creating steam that can be used to pressurise pipes and containers, or power machinery. Various gels explode on contact, or emit light to illuminate darker areas. You'll find yourself able to manipulate jets of water with a handheld cannon, spraying it into tight crevices to interact with distant devices, gradually working out how to use real physics to your advantage. Plus, it's a joy to just splash about and appreciate the simulation at work.
Then the Fluros arrive in earnest. These adorable drones all have a unique personality depending on the liquid they're formed from (water-based Fluros hop from switch to switch, for example, while luminescent goo Fluros are terrified of their own light and try to murder themselves as quickly as possible. Oh, and lava Fluros will burn you, obviously.) Knowing which Fluros to animate in any given situation, then working out how Maxwell can exploit them, adds an entirely new dimension to the gameplay that remains relevant and surprising throughout the campaign.
All of these elements eventually conspire to create some of the best and most intricate puzzles we've seen in the last decade. Once the lengthy campaign gets up to speed, it presents a smorgasbord of incredibly complex interlinked mechanisms consisting of numerous switches, liquids and moving parts. You'll need to break each one down with clockwork-esque precision, analyse what makes them tick, and then gradually assemble a solution involving logical deduction, reflexes and more than a little trial and error.
The 'Eureka Moment' comes often and hits hard, flooding your system with endorphins once you've managed to crack a particularly tough solution after a long day at the office. Be aware that Vessel doesn't deign to patronise players with short attention spans, presenting its puzzles in a very matter-of-fact fashion rather than breaking them up with shooting or cutscenes, so be sure to dip into the campaign little and often. When you're stumped -- trust me, you will be -- just walk away. Then return refreshed and reinvigorated with an entirely new outlook.
Vessel also looks absolutely gorgeous - perhaps even more so now we can appreciate its on an HDTV. Its cohesive steampunk aesthetic, rich colour palette and exquisite eye for detail results in a truly beautiful game, even when you get your eye in. Each area you visit is visually distinct, boasting a unique motif, benefiting from eyecatching scenery and pin-sharp foreground elements. My only real gripe is that Maxwell's animations are still rather clunky and primitive when compared to the sumptuous backgrounds.
Replaying Vessel allowed me to notice some of the finer details that I missed the first time around. Some tricky optional puzzles are on hand for upgrades, while each zone feels noticeably different beyond their art direction, both in terms of pacing and structure. It really is a masterful piece of software, tied together by a soulful soundtrack from Jon Hopkins.
However, my second playthrough also introduced me to Vessel's biggest weakness, which I'd managed to avoid through sheer luck in the PC version. Every once in a while, a puzzle demands split-second timing and platforming reflexes that Maxwell's controls simply can't keep up with, meaning that you'll find yourself knowing the solution but unable to pull it off. Some of these instances are due to stiff execution challenges, which is fair enough, but getting hung up on a ledge during a pivotal jump or unable to turn quickly enough can lead to a fair few moments of intense aggravation.
But these moments don't come often enough to mar what was, and still is, an absolutely superb puzzler. So long as you're patient and crave a mental workout, Vessel deserves your immediate attention.
- 10+ hours of intricate, challenging puzzles and platforming
- Extraordinary fluid modelling and versatile mechanics
- Gorgeous visuals, cohesive art direction
- Outstanding soundtrack
- Arkwright's animations are fairly crude
- Some solutions can be slightly finicky
- Lack of overt hints, dense pacing
The Short Version: Vessel is a masterful brainteasing platformer built on impressive fluid simulation and exceptional puzzles. Patient PS3 owners now have the opportunity to enjoy this challenging, handsome and uncompromising PC gem, and should seize it with both hands.