Vaporum is a game that attempts to combine and celebrate two retro-cool concepts: grid-based movements and steampunk. The idea of directing an avatar over tiles to pick up items and manoeuvre against foes is one that is appealing in theory but tricky to pull off in practice. When starting off in Vaporum, pivoting in this way is novel but after the second hour you begin to think that a controller with analogue sticks isn’t the ideal tool. After getting stuck on a puzzle and searching for solutions on Steam, I realised the game had been adapted for PS4 from the PC environment. Regardless, I really enjoyed the eccentric combination of functional brass pipework, gaudy art deco and brutalist concrete. This style complemented a challenging journey through brain-teasing puzzles and chess-like enemies.
Moving from tile to tile seems apt when you consider the universe the protagonist inhabits is one where culture is stuck in the 19th Century. The action controls and the user interface feel out of place, although this could be expected considering their adaptation to suit a console. I found having so many options for gameplay a little daunting compared to the simplistic console games I am used to. These options include the ability to pause and fast-forward time, upgrades and gear attributes that weren’t clearly explained and awkward controls in the form of trigger-button combinations. The analogue sticks felt too sensitive for the grid layout, especially when the panic sets in after confronting a powerful opponent. I found myself spinning around and hitting walls when making hasty retreats from acidic bugs and ghostly humanoids. The experience was still enjoyable but perhaps my casual fingers are not acclimated to the level of dexterity required.
While I was immediately reminded of BioShock after starting the tutorial, I still found the cinematics and environmental design intriguing. A character learning about his surroundings when his origin and motivations are opaque encourages the player to focus on the journey and not the role they should be playing. Dark and dingy corridors disguise the former glory and supernatural mystique that the malevolent tower radiates. The throbbing pulse that makes up the ambient sound is quickly tuned out but it is effective in inducing tension in the player. This white noise is punctuated by the dripping of damp and rushing of turbines with the clicking of metallic limbs warning the player of impending danger. Although the robotic arachnids scuttle around corner to slash and damage, they seem to release that tension instead of intensifying it. The combat that follows almost seems turn-based as projectiles and strikes have cooldowns which force the player to move around like a chess piece. The strikes of NPCs can be anticipated once you have faced them before but when you enter a room faced with a flying blunderbuss and two mutated crabs it’s not exactly light work to take them out.
Some highlights of Vaporum were the scratchy phonograph recordings and notes which were looted from containers. They helped to gradually build up a context for the game and keep the player interested in continuing the arc of the story. The language used in these items reflected the steampunk theme and this added to the consistency of the game, immersing the player and firmly suspending their disbelief. Each graphic, from the gear icons in the HUD to the signage and furniture, was designed to fit into this theme and it made for a captivating experience. The prime inconvenience of exploring a dimly lit tower (aside from supernatural foes) is not being able to see more than a few squares ahead of you. Luckily, your exosuit makes up for this with a built-in torch. Oddly, this was reminiscent of exploring a cramped Fallout factory in power armour: I found it more than a little claustrophobic.
It was interesting to search the corridors so that the lore behind the looming structure could be uncovered, even if the low rumble of pistons and generators made me feel uneasy. If an eclectic mix of industrial revolution-era technology and otherworldly energy is your cup of tea, I think this is the game for you.
Mastering the grid format and the fiddly controls of this game took me several floors of gameplay but once I had the hang of it I realised that timing was the key to success, both in solving puzzles and neutralising hostile creatures of the tower.
- Immersive universe, especially if steampunk is your jam
- Thematic consistency in graphics, audio and narrative
- Challenging puzzles and difficult enemies
- Complicated controls that were hard to remember
- Grid format did not seem to suit a console
- Poorly explained gear and upgrades