By: Matthew Striplen
Ah yes, another indie hidden gem. The platform-puzzler genre has become overrun with titles over the past few years, especially in the indie world. Vessel, however, creates an exciting and engaging experience, using the simplest motifs to tie together an entire world of challenges.
As a platformer, the controls are not overly complicated. Running and jumping is pretty standard, but the interest comes in the form of item usage. Your character, a successful scientist and inventor, has a number of devices at his disposal, most notably his water pack. One of my favorite aspects of this game is its ability to endow a single object or function with a multitude of different uses. As for the actual mechanics of the controls, just about everything is very intuitive and natural.
Much of what Vessel has to offer presents itself as gameplay and puzzle design. While the graphics are definitely not ugly, they lack polish and defining characteristics. The character model of the scientist looks bland. Perhaps it was the designer’s intent to make him look like an everyman, but giving him some distinguishing features would have been more interesting to look at.
Also, many levels are very dark, though most important objects are illuminated in some fashion. While the dark can be a bit monotonous, the bright colors and more intricate designs are more effective in contrast. The dark atmosphere did make certain objects difficult to see, however. Maybe it was just me, but I missed a few important objects that should have been in plain sight due the shadowy nature of the levels.
Water is one of the most abundant resources in Vessel, and the animators did a fantastic job of creating the fluid physics. Since fluids are notoriously difficult to simulate, the designers came up with a great solution by having them behave as a collection of tiny beads. This makes water flow in a much more realistic manner.
The sounds fall into the same category as the graphics: neither good nor bad. A generic electronica musical score accompanies most of the journey, calling little attention to itself. Instead of providing thematic elements, the soundtrack lends a mood in lieu of that. Voice acting is absent but not missed as the storyline is conveyed through a series of journal entries instead. The sound effects are unobtrusive, though the slurping noise of liquids is pretty fun.
The heart and soul of Vessel lies in the puzzles. The premise is that your character invented water-based entities, known as Fluros, to perform various tasks, presumably factory work. In actuality, the scientist merely invents a device, called a Seed, which attracts water. When enough has been accumulated a Fluro is formed. Fluros are tricky little beings that compulsively press any button available to them. One of them escapes your watch and locks you out of your own lab, thus beginning the game. Since Fluros are composed of water, they can be created at will to help overcome obstacles. Despite their fragility, Fluros can reach many locations unavailable to the player.
Keeping in line with the theme of different functions for an item, Fluros can also be dangerous. Their button pressing needs can never be sated, even if the cost of pressing a button means the destruction of their own body or others.
As the player continues their quest, liquids other than water become available, begging the obvious question: “Can Seeds create Fluros out of any fluid?” Why yes, yes they can; and that’s where the real fun begins. Plus, they take on new properties depending on their composition.
It totally blew my mind the first time I saw non-water Fluro. What made this so cool is the fact that the player is introduced to the Fluro concept as something concrete, immutable. After playing extensively with the water Fluros in diverse puzzles, I expected the puzzles to evolve, not the means by which to solve them. As the environment changed, the same Seeds took on a completely new meaning and it was awesome. I don’t want to give away too much, but this is one of the most creative uses of inventory I’ve seen in any video game.
By the way, Seeds attract fluid through solid structures, paving the way for even more creative puzzles. Man, some of the puzzles are hard! Challenges are presented to the player without any explanation, forcing you to explore and tinker with the mechanisms at hand. Sometimes the goal is not readily observable and may make the player backtrack to understand what he or she has actually accomplished.
Vessel forces the player the think as the designers did: creatively. This compels the player to make all discoveries for themselves with minimal spoon-feeding, which gives people a genuine sense of accomplishment after solving a particularly difficult puzzle.
Vessel is a difficult, brain-bending game. I talked about the fantastic inventory usage before, but I’ll say it again, the use of Fluros and Seeds is extremely inventive, and I couldn’t wait to see what they would evolve into next. That being said, the impact of the game is contingent on the newness of the puzzles and surprise of the experiences, making replay value fairly low. If you like puzzles, Vessel is definitely worth the money.