Fixing machines, moving drain pipes, re-directing water flow… it sounds like the everyday work of your average plumber. It also sounds like a pretty terrible concept for a video game, unless you happen to be Nintendo and your plumber-themed game stars a particular moustached Italian. But in Strange Loop Games’ puzzle-platformer Vessel, draining liquids and fiddling with water spouts can actually be really, really fun. No, trust me, it can be.
Vessel is all about liquid, and Strange Loop Games has managed to create some of the most intriguing, versatile and realistic liquid physics ever seen. Water, lava, fruit juice – it’s all here, and it flows, sprays, bubbles, squirts, drips and sloshes just like the real thing. Indeed, every droplet of liquid in Vessel is individually rendered, meaning merely jumping into a puddle can create an almost a limitless number of different splash effects and patterns.
But don’t worry – Vessel is more than just a physics nerd’s wet dream. It’s also a robust, challenging and thought-provoking puzzle game. Players take on the role of the talented, and slightly eccentric, inventor M. Arkwright, who has become world-famous for creating a new life form called the Fluro. These Fluros are small, one-eyed, liquid-based creatures who are supposed to help humanity by providing us with an infinite source of cute and adorable slave labor. But like many fantastical sci-fi inventions, the Fluros soon run amok, and it’s up to Mr. Arkwright to clean up the mess.
The adventure plays out in four beautifully designed levels – a cave, factory, orchid and mine. Each section features its own distinctive graphical style (the orchid, in particular, is a sight to behold), but all are linked by a colorful, steampunk theme, with moving cogs, steaming pipes and gigantic machines a feature of every landscape. Again, this really adds to the whole science / physics vibe, but it also means Vessel is quite a picturesque game, and you will want to complete it just to gaze at each area.
A Puzzling Conundrum
To fix the destruction wrought by Vessel’s cute Fluros, players will need to solve dozens upon dozens of puzzles using the power of, you guessed it, liquid. Most of the time, these puzzles are as simple as flicking a switch to open a door, or pulling a lever to move an object. But to physically get your character to some of these switches, you will need to display creative flair. Normally, this means guiding water through drainpipes, spraying fluid with your liquid gun, or maybe even creating a new Fluro to flick the switch for you.
The Fluros actually become an essential ingredient to your puzzle-solving skills as the game progresses. As the puzzles get more difficult, the Fluros evolve to exhibit new habits and abilities. For instance, some Fluros are attracted to light, while others are attracted to dark spaces. Players soon learn that they need to utilize every one of these evolutionary quirks in order to solve the game’s increasingly tricky conundrums.
On the whole, Vessel’s puzzles are well thought-out, enjoyable and will certainly provide many of those “this is the stupidest, most difficult thing I ever… oh wait, solved it” moments that puzzle-game fans relish. But a word of warning: Vessel does not contain any hints, tutorials, guides or even a helpful, wise-cracking side-kick (a la Portal 2). In this regard, it’s very much an old-school experience, and players are expected to rely solely on their own wits and ingenuity to advance.
My Brain Hurts…
The entire Vessel experience should take about 10 hours to complete. No puzzle is impossible, but if you’re like me, then you will find there are a few moments when you need to take a break, mull over a particular section, and then return with fresh eyes and a less frustrated brain. This is particularly the case in the last level – the mine – where the puzzles become gigantic in size.
I should also mention that there are a couple of puzzles that I found very annoying. This wasn’t because they were difficult to solve, but because they required either precise aiming with your liquid gun, or a reliance on the occasionally flawed AI of the Fluros. It was during moments like these that Vessel transformed from a “challenging but fair” experience to a “screw this – I’m going to jam my mouse into the exhaust fan and blow my computer up” experience (OK… maybe I have slight anger issues). Thankfully, most of the puzzles don’t fall into this category, because when they do, it detracts from the otherwise smooth and fluid progression of the game.
Frustrating moments aside, Vessel is another shining example of how the independent games scene is flourishing with creativity and originality. At just $14.99, Vessel is around a quarter of the price of a AAA game, but it contains more flair and ingenuity than most blockbuster games can muster. Do yourself a favor and invest in this indie gem, because Vessel is a rich, fulfilling and splash-tastic journey.