Strange Loop Games are a funny bunch. While the majority of developers these days are using advancements in technology to improve lighting mechanics, draw distance, and texture resolution, Strange Loop are happy to sacrifice graphics in order to improve in-game physics. Vessel is a game that totally encapsulates that core value of the company – gameplay over graphics. With that principle in mind, we have a cheap, clever, and excruciatingly difficult liquid physics-based puzzler that, despite not looking as crisp as a lot of its contemporaries, still manages to pack a significant punch with its charming aesthetic style.
A lot of the time, when a game boasts “improved liquid physics”, it gets me thinking “excellent, the water will look better when I jump in it!”. That’s the extent of the usefulness of liquid physics in most games. For Vessel, a unique engine was built from the ground up, specifically to optimise liquid particle physics. Why, you might ask? Well, Vessel is a puzzler. A puzzler that involves a lot of liquid. A lot of liquid. You take control of one M. Arkwright, a (I like to imagine) mad scientist who has invented the Fluro. Fluros are automatons composed of simply a bubble of water and a Seed in the centre, and seem to have been employed in every factory in the world. While they can’t be directly controlled, their behaviour can be manipulated – by using the liquid available in the level (such as from a generously placed tap), a Fluro can be created and indirectly ordered to move to places that you can’t reach. Due to their uncontrollable nature, the Fluros have run amok, and it’s your job to travel to the factories and right the wrongs caused by your invention.
While the first Fluros you encounter will be solely water, as the game progresses you will slowly be introduced to other forms of the machines – the Seeds can create various Fluros out of any fluid or combination of fluid. Some kinds of Fluro are attracted to bright lights, some to dark spots, some to sprayed goo, and you have to make allowances for the nature of these Fluros in order to solve virtually every puzzle in the game. This might sound daunting, but you are introduced to the liquids other than water very gradually – you don’t even get your water gun until you’re about 45 minutes and a couple of head scratching puzzles through, and it’s about double that before you meet the second fluid, protoplasm.
There are inherent problems with the Fluros, however. They primarily lie in the fact that they are automatons – AIs that are not controllable – as I mentioned earlier. For starts, when you create a Fluro, you’d do well to run the fuck away. They’re not dangerous, but you are, and if one jumps on you, it will see a timely death. This becomes a source of frustration very quickly, as it’s almost impossible (for me, at least) to predict exactly where a newly created Fluro, in mid-air, will land.
The difficulty curve is perfectly crafted. Each time you receive a new toy, a simple puzzle is presented that wordlessly explains how to use it, before throwing you into the deep end. This might sound a bit rough, but in a game like Vessel, doing rather than watching is the best method of learning the mechanics. Plus, after you solve one of these difficult puzzles, you feel like a god. And then you keep solving them. And then you feel like more of a god. While it does have a ”Journal” feature, in which Arkwright notes his thoughts on a recent discovery for your convenience, new tools aren’t explained through walls of text, which is often my primary reason for closing a puzzle game. This is what I love about games like this and Q.U.B.E. - there’s not a single word of text in that game, and yet the puzzles never feel overwhelming. Well, they do once, in the latter. But that’s a different game.
The puzzles may look complex, at first, but there is always an elegant, simple solution. Vessel so brilliantly captures that “ahhh” moment that is crucial to any puzzler’s enjoyment factor. Even more brilliantly, the majority of the main puzzles have a number of solutions – there’s the elegant one, and there’s the ugly as fuck one. Can you guess which one I tended to work out?
While the gameplay is fantastic, a game like this still needs at least passable art and sound direction to tie it all together. Vessel doesn’t just match this requirement, it destroys it. The aesthetics are a 2.5D sidescroller in a steampunk setting. Think Donkey Kong Country – that’s what I do whenever someone mentions 2.5D sidescrollers. More than just adding to the game’s art, the steampunk aesthetics allow for the intricate workings of each broken machine to be presented in an open, accessible environment, making it feel as though steampunk was really the only sensible choice.
The music is so fantastic that it requires its own paragraph. Firstly, it was composed by Jon Hopkins, an electronic artist who has worked with Coldplay, Brian Eno and has been nominated for a Mercury Prize. If that doesn’t impress you yet, how’s this: when you walk into a room, very little of the music is playing. As you progress towards completing the puzzle, more music layers are added and it becomes louder. Upon completion, the full track begins, gradually fading out as you leave the room. Impressed? Me too. It’s not just that, though - Vessel boasts one of the best soundtracks of the year, even if you ignore the clever mechanism by which it is implemented in the game.
Vessel offers over 15 hours (if you’re shit, like me) of fantastic, hair-ripping-out, complex puzzle gameplay. It was developed primarily by a team of two Australians who left EA because they would rather focus on gameplay over graphics. It can boast a custom, specialised engine, which is a claim that very few games can make. It can be frustrating, at times, but the desire to unlock that next nozzle or see what’s in that next room has the power to drive it past that. This is a labour of risk and love, which shines through from the very first minute of gameplay. It paid off fantastically.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Vessel by Strange Loop Games.