Vaporum is a grid-based, dungeon crawler steampunk, RPG. If that seems like a lot for you let's break it down. For those unfamiliar with the genre, you move square by square through the map, and the enemies do the same. It's sort of like if a point and click adventure game was in real time, or if you combined the old maze Windows screensaver with Bioshock. Now, I’m going to avoid the comparison to Bioshock as much as I can, but the “tower in the ocean, steampunk environment, magical substance transforming the residents, mechanical robot enemies, and large, suited, not-longer-humans as minibosses” comparison is a little hard to ignore. That’s not to say it's derivative or anything bad like that. If I had to pick a jumping off point for a game, the above quoted mini-genre isn’t a bad place to start.
I am going to break my review of the game into what I have been able to identify as the 4 main gameplay elements of Vaporum. The exploration, the puzzles, the combat, and the story. In a lot of games these would be so tied together it would be hard to separate them, but in Vaporum there is a certain something missing to tie them together. Whether it's the art style, atmosphere, or simply that in other games one of the four gameplay elements is strong enough to carry the rest, I have no idea.
As for exploration within the game, you wander through the slightly damp corridors of a mysterious tower in the ocean. Most doors shut and locked, you dig and scour for the keys to continued progress, pressing buttons and pulling levers. You twist and turn through the pipe filled maze, always on the brink of losing your way. You stand at the precipice to a new room, heart pounding when you press the button or turn the key, praying the other side doesn’t slam shut, locking you in a new room full of enemies. I will admit, it's pretty well done. Thank goodness Vaporum has moved on with the times, and done away with the pen-and-paper style of mapmaking, and offers you an ingame, auto updated, map with which to navigate. I just don’t have that kind of time. The downside? You will almost certainly need the map. While each level has it's own theme and art direction (water, pipes, and valves notwithstanding), within the levels the walls, props, and art assets are the same. The same desks, cabinets, and chests litter the levels, and without the map, it's almost impossible to tell one room from another. Nitpicky, I know, but in a game where your vision and movement are limited to the four cardinal directions, having the same scene play out on your monitor room after room is hard to ignore. Now the game is rather linear, so you aren’t going to be finding many shortcuts past enemy rooms. But a small number of secrets (accompanied by a text popup and a satisfying little bell sound) do a good job of rewarding the thrifty adventurer
As far as the game's puzzles are concerned, there are many comparisons that can be made to traditional point-and-click adventure games. Aside from that, you won’t be combining many items and rubbing them against everything else in Vaporum. The puzzles are simple, but not in a bad way. They mostly boil down to press the right button, block the laser, or (shudder) sliding block puzzles. I got stuck up on more than a few of the puzzles, and I will admit some of that is my fault, and I did eventually feel very clever for solving them. The team makes good use of the limitations of the genre, and I never really felt like they were recycling ideas too much. But the lack of an ingame reason for some of the solutions made them often difficult to find. At one point the game had me collecting a series of items all labeled “Quest Item”, so I knew I needed to hang on to them, but I just could not figure out why I had them or where they went. It dawned on me after a while, and I did feel a little proud for figuring it out, but why those items went in those places to unlock the door was never fully explained. The rest of the puzzles as far as I can tell are your typical “find the button” or “wait until you can get to the other side” fare. Once again the art provides a little speed bump. The corridors are dark, and most walls look the same, so figuring out where the “where you need to go” can be difficult without liberal use of the map, and the buttons often blend into the scenery when the developers want to hide it. As for the sliding block puzzles, I get it. I really do. In a game of square by square movement, it's one of the hallmark puzzles. An object blocks your path, but a second object blocks that object's path. But it is very time consuming, even when you know the solution. Otherwise it can be just random pushing and pulling until you figure it out. In other games this is alleviated somewhat by being able to see the whole room at a glance and make a plan, but in first person? First person at strict 90-degree angles? It's a little more frustrating.
Vaporum's story is told in the “found notes and audio-diary” style with a bit of talking to himself by the protagonist. In short, the story is fine. It's nothing that draws me back to find out the ending. (Yes, I haven’t beaten the game at the time of writing, maybe it gets better later, but we have all heard that before and I lend no strength to the argument. We are a few hours of gameplay in, and I am not invested.) As for the notes and diaries, they are fine. They lend themselves to telling a mysterious story piece by piece, but when I find myself skimming through the notes, and immediately pausing the audio-diaries to read their text versions, I just have trouble getting myself invested in the story as a whole. And when I find a note talking about a new type of robot the scientists made, and it's right next to a button and a locked door, it takes away from the surprise and suspense of the ensuing fight a little bit. Is it groundbreaking? No. But it does it's job, and has some well built twists that rewarded me for having read the notes.
The combat in Vaporum takes a bit of getting used to if you haven’t played the genre before. If you stand face to face with an enemy and start trading blows, you are going to run out of health kits pretty early on. But sidestepping attacks, rotating to track a moving enemy as they hop around you, and frantically backstepping blindly firing shots at a slow advancing mini-boss is very satisfying. The grid based combat, and real time movement system for the enemies work well to making combat feel visceral, scary, and disorienting. Now that being said, it toes the line between frantic movement littered with well timed potshots, and square dancing. With multiple enemies, surprise attacks, and varied terrain, it's fun. It's good. It makes your heart beat as you slam your finger on the save button victoriously after a large fight. But sometimes, with single enemies that you see coming in open areas, it's square dancing. Swing once. Step to the side. Wait for the enemy to move to in front of you. Swing again. Move to the other side. Wait for them to move. If you want the true experience reread the above lines a dozen times for the higher health enemies. Now this isn’t necessarily not fun. Figuring out movement patterns, and finding the right area in the level to make your stand, if all part of the game. But it is there as one of the few flaws on the combat system.
The elements work fine in their own respect, and even cross over to make for fun gameplay. Exploration meets combat when you frantically try and remember how much hallway is left behind you as you blindly back up. Puzzles meet combat as you frantically try and pull the right lever while dodging sledgehammers. Exploration and story go hand in hand to reward you for paying attention. Exploration is often the key to finding the solution to puzzles. Vaporum does a lot of stuff right in a genre that, as far as I can tell, has been largely untouched for years. Popular in the early days of computer gaming, the grid based RPG has only just started to make a resurgence. I like how Vaporum isn’t randomly generated. I like how they put in specific set pieces that are well timed and well done. I like how they modernize the movement controls and combat timing. I like how they experiment with abilities in the form of swappable modules. I like how they experiment with the engine to make clever puzzles that feel rewarding to solve.
Overall I would recommend Vaporum as the first person grid-based dungeon crawler to play if someone asked me about the genre. Now, my experience with the genre is a few hours of Legend of Grimrock I, but I like Vaporum better than Grimrock, and that managed to be popular enough to get a sequel, so maybe that says something.
The game released September 28th, and is on sale for 10% off until October 5th. The game normally sells for $20.
Final score: 7 out of 10
A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of review.