Review by SSpectre
"Vessel's amazing puzzles and overwhelming innovation make it a surprise candidate for Game of the Year."
+ An endless stream of new ideas from start to finish
+ Clever puzzles that intertwine multiple mechanics
+ Difficulty curve is just right
+ Aesthetics are polished and atmospheric
- Controls are a little slippery
- Not all mechanics are used to their full extent
Vessel is my favourite kind of game. It's the kind of game that's indie enough to have a truckload of experimental ideas in its head, but with enough of a budget to actually see all of its ideas to fruition. It's the kind of game with clearly identifiable influences, but with enough of a mind of its own that it manipulates and evolves those influences into something completely new. Its foundation is so strong that the only major problems it has are technical ones, which, while disappointing, shouldn't keep you from checking out what is probably the best pleasant surprise of 2012.
Vessel is a physics-based puzzle-platformer whose puzzles heavily involve shooting various liquids out of a back-mounted tank, and on the manipulation of disorganized creatures called Fluros. Said Fluros are the invention of protagonist M. Arkwright, who is being called in to repair all the machinery they've disrupted as they start to evolve beyond their original manual labour purpose. Basically, it's what LIMBO would be if the puzzles were solved using the mechanics of Super Mario Sunshine and Pikmin, and if the atmosphere was a middle ground between all three.
But remember how I said it manipulates and evolves these concepts? Well, for starters, unlike Mario Sunshine, the liquids are a lot more varied and interesting than simple water, but more importantly, the Fluros are made of these liquids. Each Fluro is composed of a liquid and a seed, which determines its behaviour. The possible behaviours differ greatly, from chasing after Arkwright, to avoiding light, to triggering any inactive switches the Fluro can see. Using the Fluros as both your assistants and your antagonists is the first, and widest, of several gameplay curveballs the game throws at you, and it means that learning and manipulating each of their properties and relatively complex AI patterns is just as satisfying as solving the larger puzzle they're a part of.
But where the game really comes alive is in its combinations of mechanics. Vessel pulls off the crucial ingredient of a good puzzle game: nearly everything can be used in conjunction with nearly everything else. A luminescent chemical can be sprayed to direct light-sensitive Fluros, mixing water and lava will make steam (for activating certain switches), and Fluros can break and be reconstructed with different seeds once you've got them where you need them, just to list off some examples. It all coalesces into a textbook case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, with the whole in this case being an intricately-woven game with plenty of Eureka! moments and the potential to keep you entertained for a long time.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that the playtime amounts to around 10 hours, give or take a few depending on how sharp your puzzle-solving skills are, and whether or not you decide to search for the handful of admittedly pretty useless equipment upgrades. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a short game, as long as it uses all of its material to its fullest, but I feel justified in calling Vessel out for it, because there is clearly more that can be done with this material. In particular, the blue and red goo, which are the go-to puzzle-solving tools for about a quarter of the game, may as well stop existing after that point, and never really mix with anything except each other, the way every other element does.
The important thing, though, is that the game still makes good use of the time it has. Vessel still has a couple surprises in store when it comes to atmosphere and challenge. The challenge level itself isn't so surprising; given that the developers were able to craft the game's complex, multifaceted puzzles, it's no big shock that they also tuned them to a perfect difficulty curve. What's impressive is the way they teach you the game's mechanics: silently. Oh, sure, Arkwright occasionally makes notes in his journal about the most basic properties of liquids and Fluros, but all the other complexities are elaborated through skillfully-placed stealth tutorials and visual cues.
With regards to atmosphere, Vessel's steampunk setting and soundtrack of mostly piano and electronic percussion create a tone of study and progress that fits perfectly with its genre. The engine created primarily to control the game's physics also proves especially proficient at lighting effects, although it occasionally and noticeably has to sacrifice animation and liquid appearance in favour of functionality.
Which brings us to the other problem with Vessel: the controls. Like the length, this shouldn't be a deal-breaker, because rather than being unresponsive or broken, Vessel's controls are simply unpolished. Jumping can feel a little slippery, hitboxes seem slightly off, and, least surprising of all, the liquid you spray can't exactly be counted on to do what you want. One interesting feature is the way you control Arkwright's arms while operating machinery, which gives a nice sense of weight to your actions. But it also creates weird situations like turning a 10-foot crank by slowly rotating the analog stick while Arkwright's whole body flails around. Finally, the game recommends you use a gamepad, apparently with good reason, as I've heard the sentiment that the mouse and keyboard controls are rather poor. Unfortunately, since I did use a gamepad, I can't really verify this.
Regardless of how you control it, Vessel is a definite recommendation. It's practically a word-for-word list of what I look for in a new IP: it's smart, it's unique, and it's attractive in an artistic and functional sense not just graphics for the sake of graphics. Easily my dark horse candidate for Game of the Year, Vessel is, ironically, solid.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/10/12, Updated 12/10/12
Game Release: Vessel (US, 03/01/12)
Got Your Own Opinion?
You can submit your own review for this game using our Review Submission Form.