When was the last time a puzzle game tried to offer more than the same-old game mechanics of Tetris, wasn’t a clone of Professor Layton and simply made one’s head ache with its steep difficulty curve? Strange Loop Games’ 2D puzzle platformer Vessel is one such rare gem to take that crown of the most mindbending puzzler since Jonathan Blow’s Braid.
Inventor Arkwright’s experiment, creating with the Fluros life forms which consist of different fluids, gets out of control when the little creatures escape. So it’s up to him to find them again and build the machine he always dreamt of.
The world of science with its own character chaos theory
The character of Arkwright is not the most memorable in the history of puzzle games, but with a mix of Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (in which Mickey Mouse is responsible of a neverending cycle of little magical creatures who wreak havoc on the environment, also connected to water/fluids) and a sympathetic genius of a scientist who wants to change the world, but causes more damage than anything else, the thin plot is just enough to engage the player on an emotional level. It also helps that constant updates in diary entries provide sufficient personality traits for the protagonist to make him more relatable.
Story progression isn’t done by any long cutscenes or dialogues, but rather by the player’s own pace and involvement in puzzle solving. As it’s an open world with sub-levels to traverse, individually selected at some point by simply choosing the sections in the options menu (also to go back to the laboratory), it can feel both overwhelming and tedious. A suspenseful story or deep characters (or character, as there are no NPCs) this doesn’t have, but the gameplay makes more than up for it.
Where to go and what to do, Doc?
The vast world in Vessel is divided into a central hub in which Arkwright can build his machine and upgrade his skills, and three big levels in which he finds the appropriate Fluros. Each is not only visually different, but has its own gameplay style. Usually machines in each section have to be brought back to working order, but to get there, a lot of puzzles have to be solved and jumping sections to be mastered.
It’s true that the game has platformer mechanics (which could be improved, as they sometimes lack responsiveness and the character’s animations aren’t that fluid), but at its core, this is a puzzler through and through. The main idea of using a vacuum-cleaner-like tool to suck in and release liquid may sound easy enough, but it gets extremely complex when not only the right sort of liquid (water, lava, a blue and red one which create an explosive mixture, among others) has to be chosen, but also which Fluros are created.
Fluros are creatures and features of all kinds
Some are aggressive and follow Arkwright, others simply run to the next button to jump on, while another is drawn to his own liquid and absorbs it. Like in real life, elements like water and lava create steam when they are combined, and in some levels it is absolutely essential to have two of these Fluros running against each other in order to let the condensed water rise to a machine’s pipe to make it work again and open a door, for example.
How to use each Fluros and element together becomes rather complex early on in the game and offers some freedom to experiment and to decide how to tackle each problem. Sometimes a different Fluros can get the same job done, and as there are usually no textual or visual hints, it’s up to the player to find out. Some tasks are downright devious to perform and demand a lot of planning and precise running/jumping.
This of course leads to some problems, as when the reactions of certain Fluros are erratic, and more often the restart of a puzzle leads to different results. Like liquid in real life, the way it behaves can’t always be predicted, and controlling it can be even more frustrating. Running out of fluid or not using enough to create a Fluros, or being confused about the different types to choose from are just a few of the issues the game throws in the way of the player. And then there’s the upgrade system…
Back to the lab for upgrading
Upgrading the equipment, like having a bigger container of fluid or throwing a certain amount of it in a ball-like for creating a Fluros out of the box (one of the most essential upgrades early on), is done in the main hub and requires a specific type of white fluid, which is usually hidden somewhere in the levels, often obtained after solving another difficult puzzle. Only it becomes apparent very soon that most of these upgrades (except for the aforementioned ones) are simply superfluous, and it isn’t really worth the time having them at all. Maybe it would have been better to level up the character after completing certain stages and to make the upgrades more relevant to the gameplay, as they rarely help make solving the puzzles any easier.
Big boss battles
Something which hasn’t been mentioned, but which is both entertaining and frustrating, is the design of the imaginative boss battles. There are only three (one for each world), and they can only be beaten by using Fluros which both try to hassle the player and who can bring their boss to his downfall. It’s too bad then that despite the emphasis on puzzle-solving, these become pretty hectic and chaotic very fast, and it doesn’t help that the game has quite a lot of slowdowns, when too many Fluros are on screen.
Graphics and sound are not always sound
Graphics and sound are reminiscent of the presentation in Braid, i.e. they offer melancholic, but beautiful piano sounds and a colorful world which seems to be out of a dream. Only with each individual level and its own themes does it become apparent that there’s enough variety in the environments to create something like creepy horror, as in the mines, for example. Light effects are especially pretty, and the sounds adapt to its surroundings by simply staying in the background with minimalistic synthesizers.
It’s a shame that the superb presentation is hampered by the already-mentioned slowdowns and a few too many system crashes which are very annoying, as the game’s difficulty is very high. It’s fortunate that the autosave function works just fine with its fair checkpoint system. But glitches and some bugs, even in the newest version, make the experience unnecessarily frustrating.
A game for the hardcore with a presentation for the masses
Vessel is a contender for most difficult puzzle game in years, but despite its high difficulty, it offers enough charme with its superb presentation that it’s easy to fall in love and stick with it until the end. With a playtime of over 10 hours it’s also one of the longest experiences in the indie games scene and offers more than enough value for its small asking price.
If it weren’t for some gameplay issues, a few technical problems and its lack of direction at some points, it would be more accessible and enjoyable for a wider audience. As it stands, this is a lovely crafted game in which the emphasis on puzzle solving makes it less a jump’n’run but a stand-still-‘n’-think game.
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