Wot I Think: Vessel

By Adam Smith on March 6th, 2012 at 3:46 pm.

I’ve been charmed by physics puzzler Vessel ever since I first saw its liquids in action, sloshing, spilling and trickling around as gravity intends. I wanted to be set loose in its steampunk world, to jump in puddles and catch raindrops in a bucket. Vessel had different ideas. It would let me play, but it also wanted me to think and it wanted me to think hard. Here’s wot I think about that.

I’m still in love with the way liquids move in this game, whether they’re streaming out of a pipe and causing a basin to overflow, droplets bouncing along the floor and running down surfaces, or being fired from the hose that the player fits together early in proceedings, with its various nozzles allowing for different shapes and strengths of emission. I’d happily spend a few hours just playing around, jumping in puddles and singing in the rain, the city and the zeppelins moored to its towers my backdrop.

Vessel isn’t about splashing about in the bathtub with a rubber duck though, it’s more like being the plumber called in to fix the faucets. It’s a thinking, working man’s game and all the cleverness of the technology goes toward the invention of puzzles to be solved, with only the occasional area devoted to pure play.

I’ve been flummoxed more times in the last few days than I’m entirely comfortable admitting and now that I’ve finished the game, I’m still not convinced it’s as hard as I made it out to be. It follows the pattern of introducing basic elements at the beginning and then adding new twists to them as progress is made. There’s rarely a moment when everything you need to solve a room isn’t either in your possession or clearly visible on the screen. I’ll go further in fact; there’s rarely a moment when everything in your possession and clearly visible on the screen isn’t necessary to solve a room.

Despite the detail of the world, almost everything has a purpose. Levers, pipes, cogs, chain-pulls, it’s an industrial steampunk kind of a place, and most of the machinery does something, or at least it will do something once you repair or activate it. You see, Vessel is a game about broken things.

The player controls M Arkwright, inventor of all kinds of wonderful tools, but most famous for his creation of fluros, liquid automatons that can perform basic tasks in factory environments and, when their work is done, can easily be popped in a container and transported elsewhere. They don’t directly obey commands but rather have behaviour types, from the first you meet which are attracted by lights and an therefore be encouraged to stand on lit pressure points to the more complex evolutions that you’ll meet throughout the dozen or so hours the game takes to play through.

But I was talking about broken things and the Fluros are broken in a way. They’ve taken over Arkwright’s lab having fallen into a routine that is causing them to constantly add to their own numbers. They’re created from seeds, which look like fist-sized eyes; lob one into a container filled with water and the liquid forms into a vaguely humanoid shape around the water and then begins to follow its work routine.

As the game progresses, Arkwright’s collection of seeds grows, allowing him to create what are essentially moving puzzle parts with a specific function. Need to activate a lever that’s unreachable? You’ll have to get a seed close to it somehow and then use your hose to spray enough of the required liquid close enough to bring the Fluro to life.

Although there are caves, giant machine rooms and overground areas with a gorgeous city backdrop to connect every puzzle, Vessel is a series of puzzles. Indeed, the second major area, a gargantuan factory, allows you to travel to any of the previously visited areas in need of repair rather than traipsing back and forth. It’s an option I wish the upgrade system had followed too. As it stands, protoplasm must be collected to upgrade Arkwright’s kit and then that protoplasm must be inserted into a giant machine, a dial on which selects the desired piece of equipment. Once the necessary amount of fuel has been dropped down the chute, a wheel must be cranked to produce the actual upgrade.

It’s admirable, in a way, to make everything that happens in the game happen in the world, avoiding use of menus and shortcuts as much as possible, particularly since the world is so beautifully functional, but it goes too far at times. The mild frustration probably wouldn’t be there if navigating each screen was smoother, but jumping isn’t always entirely accurate and Arkwright often feels a little disconnected from the environment.

Throughout the game there have been times when a spark has ignited somewhere in my skull, ricocheted about for a while and then somehow transformed into the solution I’ve been looking for. Vessel is never unfair, always ensuring you’ve been shown a mechanic before expecting you to solve a room with it, but there were times when I had to walk away and come back later with fresh eyes (I keep them in the refrigerator).

Mostly, it’s a case of moving either yourself or a certain quantity of liquid from one place to another, maybe having turned it into steam first. Once I’d figured out the solution to a puzzle though, I found myself, more and more, wishing that I could activate the necessary components by clicking them with a cursor rather than running back and forth, jumping up and down, falling, being too slow, trying again.

The puzzles are frequently so ingenious and their solutions so satisfying and, often, splendid to watch in motion that the clumsy clomping back and forth of Arkwright, no matter how handsome his sideburns, feels at odds with the brilliant design of the rest. It’s not enough of an annoyance to detract greatly from what is a remarkably well-built game in every other way, with particular praise reserved for the art design and the haunting music, which is the major contributor to the game’s pervading sense of mystery and melancholy.

The Fluros though, that’s where the real magic is. While their actions are mostly predetermined and basically programmed, both in the fiction and the game design, there is an incredible amount of character in each and every one. I still feel guilty when I get in their way and they collide with me, collapsing into a pool, the semblance of life gone. And then there are the times that seeds of different types intermingle in lava and water, creating a lurching hybrid that swells, staggers and then dies before it lives.

Vessel is contained in a beautiful world, full of creations that deserve to be seen, experienced and solved. If the way of interacting with that world is sometimes stilted, it is in the end a minor complaint because I’m as impressed with the technology behind the game and its uses as I have been since those early videos. It’s lengthy too and doesn’t repeat itself, always ready with a new piece of equipment or way of thinking about a problem. While it’s less playful than I anticipated, it’s also more thoughtful and if that leads to the occasional frustration, I can take it.

Available now DRM-free for $13.49 direct from Strange Loop through the Humble store back-end (with Steam key) or on Steam at £11.99, with a 10% discount until March 8th. There is also a demo.

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33 Comments »

  1. DestructibleEnvironments says:

    Is it just me, or does the main character look like he’s from the band Gorillaz? Sorry if that is a silly remark.

    Here’s a better one: MASS EFFECT 3 OMG YES!

  2. mikmanner says:

    I can’t stand the sound of the footsteps – the music and ambiance are actually incredible but the footsteps drive me insane.

    • Gnoupi says:

      Same me.

      All day long.

      Even at night.

      Footsteps.

      All the time.

    • Kyrius says:

      I can deal with footsteps… but this voices… I just wanted them to stop! *sob*

    • Antsy says:

      Its the singing. Oh God, the singing!

      Warbling blasphemies spewing from a demonic throat. Make it stop, MAKE IT STOP…

      The kids are watching Hannah Montana again!

  3. Howling Techie says:

    Love the game so far, currently just 2 or 3 puzzles into the mines. The puzzles are not too hard, just hard enough to be very satisfying to complete, and it’s easy enough to skip puzzles and go back to them later. I just love how fluid it all is. Also, I found it nicer to play with a 360 controller.

    • qd says:

      That’s actually what the “Available now direct from Strange Loop” bit at the end refers to, they have the humble store embedded on their site. The article could have mentioned that the direct/humble version is DRM free.

      EDIT: This comment makes less sense since Howling edited their comment.

    • Adam Smith says:

      And now it shall. Thanks!

  4. BatmanBaggins says:

    I got this last weekend after trying the demo.

    It’s really great. The demo only gives a very small taste of what the game has to offer.

    Most of the puzzles are really well designed, with only a few feeling kind of clunky, but I’m almost certain that I solved one or two of them in an unintended way (that probably made it a lot harder on myself).

    Also, there’s something odd/sad/amusing about constantly creating life just to use it like a tool then stomp it out when it’s of no more use.

  5. nuh uh no way says:

    Careful gents! The DRM-free version has a nasty bug that doesn’t allow you to save games past a certain amount (on Windows 7 at least). The devs decided to put save games in the program files folder, and we all know that’s a big no-no by now.

    I’ve been told a patch is incoming, possibly even today. Just wanted to warn people as I lost hours of progress yesterday. :(

    All the more reason for people to be taking RPS’ Save Game campaign seriously and get developers on board with this, huh?

    • jondare says:

      Well, we really just need someone at GDC to have it as the subject of a discussion panel. ‘Cause it really shouldn’t be a problem to get developers to comply, given that it doesn’t really cost ‘em anything

    • Markusc says:

      I came across the same issue – try running the game as administrator, which will let it actually save.

      I find it pretty amazing that they didn’t come across this in testing… and that they decided to save to the program files folder in the first place.

  6. GetUpKidAK says:

    I couldn’t resist buying this after playing through the demo. Slightly clumsy controls aside, it’s an absolute joy.

    It’s worth pointing out that the $13.49 price on the Strange Loop Games website is quite a bit cheaper than the 10% discount price on Steam. You get a DRM-free copy (via the Humble Bundle back-end) and a Steam code, too.

  7. Turin Turambar says:

    I am also liking the game a lot, and unlike Adam, I kind of like the personal connection you feel with the world thanks to the interaction being expressed as a platform game: you have to move, jump, avoid lava fluros, and ragdoll yourself to activate levers.

  8. MadTinkerer says:

    I’m still in the Factory, but I’m having a great time so far. It reminds me of the best bits of Portal and Braid with a little bit of Super Mario Sunshine and Lemmings thrown in.

    Fantastic.

  9. HexagonalBolts says:

    I’m very much enjoying this too. The difficulty is really spot on, it always feels like a friendly challenge rather than infuriating or easy. It so far seems rather lengthy for this sort of game, which is excellent. The control scheme is slightly clumsy, movement can be a little irritating sometimes and certain sounds (i.e. THE DREADED FOOTSTEPS) need a little tweaking. Would very much recommend, especially at the price.

  10. StranaMente says:

    I feel instead that it lets too much to the player to discover.
    There is no tutorial at all, and sometimes a chamber will introduce a new concept that will take time just to discover.
    Like friendly fluros can be made out of lava, or enemy ones can be made out of water.
    You can make multiple fluros (I didn’t get it right on, but had to experiment)
    And many others, and this led me to some frustration. Yes the puzzles are clever, but some exposition wouldn’t have hurt.
    This is where playtesting helps.

    • Dominic White says:

      I’m personally rather glad that I wasn’t having everything explained to me. I’m supposed to be playing as a scientist and inventor, right? So let me tinker and experiment, and test out theories and applications! The game makes me feel smart because it’s all my solution, and not anything hinted or recommended.

    • ChrisGWaine says:

      Even if it takes some time and frustration for some people, I think it’s absolutely the right design for this game that you discover what you can do mostly by being presented with something to overcome.

  11. magnus says:

    I was hugely stuck until I realised it’s the seed type that dictates what Fluro you get, not the type of liquid you put the seed in, ooops.

  12. fenriz says:

    im surprised nobody noticed/mentioned the animations(or something) belonging to Heart of Darkness.

    Not my type puzzle game anyway. Too much braintraining junk. I remember we used to despise this stuff when it appeared in those 2nd half of 90′s games such as 7th Guest, 11th hour, Bioforge and… uh…. help me out completing the list.

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  14. trjp says:

    I tried the demo last week – reached the room with the ‘lava’ on conveyors and quickly lost my will to live.

    It may be brilliant beyond that – but that room was a crime against gaming…

    • Dominic White says:

      Huh? That room was silly-easy. You just walk forward slowly while spraying water in front of your feet. It’s not even classed as a puzzle that counts towards level completion, as it’s effectively a small ‘how not to get burnt by lava’ tutorial.

  15. RagingLion says:

    I will buy this at some point. Thanks for the thoughts – has also seemed pretty intriguing.

  16. LintMan says:

    Overall, I’m enjoying Vessel so far (I’m up to the mines portion now), but the platforming bits really drag it down for me. The early bits in the factory had me wondering why I was suddenly back in 1985 playing arcade Donkey Kong. Apparently for some people this stuff is trivially easy, but for me it is frustrating and unpleasant to carefully navigate through a level, fail a jump at the end, die and have to restart the level again, over and over. If the saves weren’t the checkpoint kind, this would be less of a problem. The only saving grace is that after the factory, there hasn’t been much at all of that arcade crap (although I’ve seen complaints about a very difficult bit at the end).

    Despite my hatred of the platforming bits, the rest of the game makes it worthwhile, with interesting mechanics and challenging puzzles. My son has been fascinated watching me play and has started playing it himself, so it has some kid appeal as well.

  17. Jupiah says:

    I just wanted to say that I just bought this game (from the humble store) based entirely on this review. I am loving it so far.