The Puzzle-Platformer genre has seen something of a renaissance in recent years. Thanks to gaming platforms such as Steam, PSN Store and XBLA, these games have found themselves a suitable home where they can gain a measure of success outside the money throwing competitions of the established games industry. Starting from the relatively simple design concept of the platform game many of these Indie titles have developed far beyond the realm of simplicity, with devs exploring new aesthetics and experimenting with game mechanics. Vessel, the first game developed by Strange Loop Games - a small developer based in Seattle - marks a strong step towards a grander aesthetic within the genre while still keeping experimentation close to its heart.
Vessel is set in a city where many of the machines are run by liquid robots called Fluros. These apparently non-sentient workers were invented by the game's hero, M Arkwright. Unfortunately these Fluros malfunction and run riot in each of the city's main sources of power and it becomes Arkwright's job to fix the malfunctioning Fluros so that the city can regain functionality. This is done through a series of ingenious puzzles which are solved using the different Fluros which Arkwright discovers on his journey.
The game's puzzles initially involve a mixture of Vessel's tailor made physics engine, which provides brilliant liquid physics, and managing the few Fluros at your disposal. Even though water doesn't particularly act like water in Vessel - acting like a far thicker substance - it's still incredibly fun to play around with, and as the game progresses the player comes across different liquids which are used together in increasing levels of complexity. Similarly the different Fluros, which also increase in variety, mean that with each new puzzle and area you are forced to change your tactic and really consider the tools at your disposal.
It's these puzzles which really lie at the heart of Vessel and the game really excels when it is challenging the player with demanding and complex problems. The game's story on the other hand can seem relatively simple. There is little to no discussion on how these Fluros are built or how Arkwright invented them. For some the story may seem like a contrite way to explain the game's main puzzle mechanic, but the game does also develop its own subtler narrative alongside the more deliberate one. Not entirely unlike the critically acclaimed Shadow of The Colossus, Vessel may make the more sensitive gamer question their usage of Fluros as a puzzle solving tool. These cute little beings happily run about at your command, pressing buttons and helping you progress through the game. Yet often, when a puzzle has been solved and a Fluro has completed its task, the player must leave them to die - in many cases the death of a Fluro is essential to your progression. On occasions the guilt of simply using these beings as disposable objects was palpable. Making the player feel guilty for their actions isn't new to videogames (SOTC mentioned above being a standout example) but it's still impressively effective when used well and unobtrusively. Vessel manages both and such emotional engagement adds a surprising and remarkable depth to the game's atmosphere.
The game's art design is also very impressive. A cartoony Steam-Punk vide proliferates and gives the environments a grand feeling, helped also by the size of some of the games chambers and the excellent sound and score (produced by John Hopkins). Unfortunately I found that, despite the presence of the Fluros, Vessel did feel a little lonely. While it's never fair to demand specific content from a game, the addition of a few NPCs would have been welcome and possibly helped to bring more 'life' to the world (I mean, it's a city right?).
Despite the great look, the large environments seem to provide problems for the game as sometimes the frame rate does drop. This isn't too much of a problem and is dismissible if not for the other few niggling issues. The controls can feel a little awkward to begin with. When using the mouse to determine direction of Arkwright's pressure hose (yes, I know, stop giggling), the player can sometimes leave the character running backwards. Along with this the character can feel a little clumsy at times and sometimes gets stuck on ledges or platforms. Buttons can also be awkward, so that when you jump on them they occasionally won't activate. These are very small, pernickety issues which in no way hinder the game as a whole but merely give the impression that there were still small issues to be ironed out on release.