Developer: Strange Loop Games
The sun was shining when I started playing Vessel. Birds were singing in the trees. Kids were tearing around the streets on bikes and scooters, enjoying the crisp Spring air. Small furry creatures were presumably frolicking in the underbrush. Or eating each other. They could have been gnawing my leg off for all I knew, because by the time I tore myself away for a quick refreshment break, the sun had long since sunk below the horizon and the urban foxes were out in force. It was past the kids' bedtime, the birds had retreated to their nests... and I hadn't even eaten lunch.
Barely two months in, and 2012 may now have its indie champion in Vessel: a game that offers a staggering amount of content along with innovative mechanics, sensational puzzles, gorgeous artwork and competency that would astound from the biggest publisher-backed boutique outfit.
Vessel is a 2D puzzly platformer set in a Steampunk world caught in the throes of a new technological revolution: water-based robots. Maverick inventor M. Arkwright has created a device that can animate bodies of water into automatons, which provides factories with a tireless infinitely-renewable workforce as well as the potential for perpetual motion. With a bright future assured, Arkwright is free to work on his biggest project to date (the mysterious Accelerator)... but when a rogue Fluro starts playing havoc in his laboratory, he realises that his discovery may have unexpected repercussions.
What follows is an impeccably paced ten to twelve hour campaign (already impressive for an inexpensive indie download title) that introduces exciting new mechanics and challenges at every turn. Manipulating liquids is the aim of the game, and a powerful physics engine provides the backbone for a dynamic fluid simulation. As you progress, Arkwright gains the ability to create various flavours of Fluro automatons who can interact with the environments in myriad different ways, personally project fluids using an upgradeable backpack water cannon, and acquires a whole host of powerful and versatile skills. He's also rather nimble and athletic for a scientist; capable of running, jumping and swinging with the best of them.
Naturally the Steampunk setting is stuffed full of pipes, valves and machinery to take advantage of, with the dynamic fluid mechanics being a pivotal gameplay feature rather than a cosmetic graphical flourish. I'm loathe to spoil the surprise, but suffice to say that relatively simple concepts are soon taken to radical extremes. In fact, convincing water to flow uphill is the least of your worries once lava, reactants, light and darkness start to play increasingly important roles.
Vessel certainly sets itself apart from the pack with raw quantity, technical prowess and reckless variety, but it primarily succeeds due to the thoughtful nature of its puzzles. Each discrete segment is an intricate mechanism that needs to be broken down and approached with an open mind, with no overt signposting or hints to shepherd you onwards save the knowledge that your core abilities can frequently be used in surprising alternative ways. Regular platforming goes hand in hand with lateral thinking and logical deduction - and critically, every success is down to you and you alone.
I often mention the "Eureka Moment" when reviewing puzzle games: that orgasmic rush of endorphins that accompanies working out a particularly tricky solution. It's the most basic thing a puzzle game can provide, and Vessel delivers it in each and every encounter. While the art design gives players plenty of visual cues about which scenery items can be interacted with and what tools to consider, your brain will have to do all the heavy lifting. Victory tastes all the sweeter when you've earned it yourself, and by balancing a finely-honed learning curve with uncompromising self-reliance, Vessel makes you work for every win.
It's a refreshing focus in an age when games are increasingly accused of 'dumbing down,' and a setup that provides the most satisfying puzzle action since the original Portal. For my money, it's on a par with Valve's sequel.
Gripes are few and far between, but it's worth pointing out that the Arkwright occasionally gets hung up on platforms, cranks and wheels (occasionally resulting in some scuppered timed sections). Clipping issues aside, the lack of hints are bound to aggravate more casual players - so be sure to visit the ever helpful Steam forums if you need a hand.
Vessel doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the visuals either. Strange Loop Games have crafted a stunning Steampunk masterpiece that blends sumptuous 2D backgrounds with 3D models and a rich colour palette; accompanied by an exquisite soundtrack from veteran composer Jon Hopkins. My one criticism would be that Arkwright's character animations are a little on the basic and wooden side, but this admittedly makes him instantly visible amidst the colourful backgrounds.
All this graphical splendour and powerful physics modelling does come at a fairly serious performance cost, however. In a far cry from the majority of smaller indie games that can merrily run on outdated hardware or non-gaming laptops, Vessel requires a bare minimum of two cores, 2 GHz of processing power, an ATI Radeon HD 2400 graphics card (or NVIDIA equivalent) and the very latest drivers (seriously, be sure to update if you're in any doubt). Again, this is a bare minimum - and you'll have to decrease the resolution unless you've got a halfway decent rig. Most knowledgeable PC gamers will already be scoffing in obvious disdain, but for a indie puzzle title, this is a seriously big deal.
A demo is available if you want to try before you buy. So try it. And then buy it if your hardware's up to scratch.
- Exceptional, varied, satisfying puzzles
- Extraordinary fluid simulation, physics engine and mechanics
- Incredibly lengthy, great value for money
- A few clipping issues
- Lack of hints/overt signposting will deter the casual crowd
The Short Version: 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.