It’s a general rule in modern game development that one should not work with water. Water is rarely interesting, it’s difficult to animate, and lends little to gameplay beyond slowing you down. It was banished from this generation of games for precisely such reasons, yet Strange Loop’s Vessel chooses to explore the possibilities of fluid, physics-based problem solving. Vessel is all about how water moves, interacts with other forces, and above all how water might behave if it was given sentient thought. The novel premise alone provides enough of a reason for you partake in Vessel’s unique brand of puzzle-platforming, but stiff, imprecise controls and design issues make for an inconsistent and often frustrating experience.
The visual and audio presentations remain Vessel's highest of highs.
As Arkwright; the inventor of the sentient “Fluros” (and from appearances, the bastard lovechild of Jemaine Clement and Eddie Riggs), you are tasked with preventing your creations from replicating themselves and wreaking havoc on the outside world. Vessel is at its best when it does its utmost to use its unusual fluid-related mechanics, allowing you manipulate water in both conscious and everyday form in order to open doors, operate steam-powered contraptions, and navigate the environment.
The backdrop for this strange concept is one of Vessel’s most outstanding achievements. The Steampunk school of art design has never been as intricately well-realized as it is in Vessel’s ornate 2D world. The locales you’ll discover are gorgeous in every detail, with superb lighting and effects providing the garnish on Strange Loop’s immersive vision of an alternate industrial revolution. The presentation also boasts a fine musical score that conveys the game’s poignant, ambiguous tone brilliantly. In a market with no shortage of appealing 2D games, Vessel manages to stand head and shoulders above a crowd that has been excelling in this field for years.
As the saying goes, "The road to evil is paved with good intentions."
Unfortunately, Vessel’s core mechanics don’t match the ambition of the setup or the exceptional setting. Arkwright never ceases to be a trial to control when it comes to basic navigation; the jumping is stiff and gives you no indication as to where you’re going to land, the ledge grab is awkward when it actually works, and the simple act of standing on a switch often leads you to perform a wild succession of over-corrections. The animation does nothing to disguise the problems as Arkwright’s movements appear to operate on hinges, moving more like a puppet than a person. It may not be a platformer on the level of a Braid or Super Meat Boy, but Vessel demands enough regular platform traversal to ensure you never feel wholly comfortable with the controls or the feedback animations. You're not so much wrestling with puzzles than the mechanics you must use to solve them.
As a result, the game handles adversity poorly, although the issues occasionally boil down to odd design choices. This is especially the case when Vessel requires you to swiftly navigate platforms, avoid traps, and rapidly create Fluros. Molten metal and lava, for instance, will kill you after a few seconds of exposure, which wouldn’t present an issue if the “seeds” used to create Fluros didn’t attract both water and lava, meaning that you may inadvertently cover yourself in deadly goo if you’re carrying a seed to close to its source. For a game that relies so much on your problem-solving abilities, it throws a frustrating number of potential threats and dangers at you that the mechanics aren't really equipped to deal with.
Fluros changed the world, but not for the better.
The persistence of the touchy controls and the deaths that may result from similarly irritating design choices often mar some of the more compelling and mind-taxing puzzles that the game has to offer. But Vessel has the good sense to never repeat itself, always mixing concepts up in a fresh and interesting way.
The puzzles are always intriguing and challenging, asking you to consider fluid dynamics, steam power, and the precocious AI of Arkwright’s creations in canny ways that are difficult to grasp but very rewarding once you do. The water physics in Vessel are as integral to the overall experience as the visuals or the music, and the viscous blobs of liquid move like you’d expect water to behave. At times, playing Vessel is like spilling water on your table and being small enough to watch the liquid bind to each individual droplet.
These impressive physics come at a cost, being extremely processor intensive to the point where the game can slow an older machine to a crawl. Be sure to play Vessel on a PC with at least a modern dual-core processor and a reasonably powerful GPU if you don’t want to experience significant slow-down as water fills the screen.
If only the platforming complemented the gorgeous art style...
The ad-hoc nature of where water and other liquids fall occasionally makes you feel like you’re devising solutions rather than catching onto what the developers wanted you to pick up on, and the puzzles are so striking and unique that conquering each one is immensely satisfying. However, don't expect the intelligent signposting you'd get from a Portal. Vessel's puzzles are neat once you grasp what the room is asking you to do, but if you're not willing to experiment, then your time will not be particularly enjoyable. Vessel will provide little in the way of explanation, which is a must considering the player's lack of familiarity with its intricate systems. It's easy to forgive a game of letting you figure things out for yourself, but only if you're the type to keep trying odd solutions until something works, else you may end up skipping puzzles with unexplained concepts.
Overall, Vessel is something unique from a technical, conceptual, and artistic standpoint and a worthy first attempt from Strange Loop. It’s a world definitely worth visiting for the concept alone and the fantastic audio-visual presentation will ensure you stay to the end, but the way you interact with Vessel’s novel ideas and setting leaves much to be desired.
Publisher: indiePub Entertainment
Developer: Strange Loop Games
Release Date: March 1, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)