Developer: Strange Loop Games / Publisher: indiePub / Played on: PC (Steam) / Price: $14.99 / ESRB: Everyone [No Descriptors]
I’ve had some of my best moments in gaming when I’m not playing at all. You’ve probably hit a few of them – instances where you just put down the controller and stop to take in what’s happening or really think over a challenge. Vessel is made almost entirely of these moments, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had an experience like it.
The most obvious comparison for Vessel’s experience is Braid. You play as a mute inventor whose creations – the autonomous Fluro – have run amok. Now, you must travel to areas and restore the world’s malfunctioning machinery to operational status. Doing so requires that you harness the rules of Vessel’s world and the behaviors of the Fluro, the single-minded creatures that you construct from fluid.
This all sounds standard, but Vessel’s brilliance comes in how the game gives you tools to solve the puzzles you encounter. Basically, after solving a puzzle, the world will cleverly expose some new behavior to you as you travel to the next. In one example early on, I was hanging onto a platform as it moved along a track. My feet grazed the top of a Fluro, kicking off some of the fluid constructing him and causing him to melt down into formless fluid. Just like that, you learn that you can jump on Fluro to deconstruct them. Naturally these interactions become much more complicated as the game goes on, just as the solutions to puzzles require iterative complexity on the rules you’ve already learned.
That pattern of exploring, learning, and then demonstrating reminds me a lot of how Valve constructs their games, so it’s no surprise that solving the puzzles in this game felt just as rewarding as those in Portal 2. If you’ve played Portal 2, you understand that’s a hell of a complement. Vessel is a game filled with charm and “ah-ha!” moments, and it’s lengthy at that. My play time ended around ten hours, and only a handful of the game’s puzzles stumped me.
Vessel’s soundtrack is amazing, especially if you’re into glitchy, atmospheric electronica. The music is more than just a running back-track, too. Whenever you first happen upon a puzzle, you’ll only hear the smooth backing track for the music. As you take steps towards solving it, the musical complexity gradually increases. When you finally solve it, the drum and bass kicks in which gives you an awesome “fuck yeah” feeling and mirrors the world’s return to operational status. It helps you feel like you’re bringing the world back to life, which motivates you to push on to the next puzzle.
The game’s sound effects aren’t quite as successful though, and the clomp-clomp-clomp of the protagonists’ footsteps got on my nerves after a while. Luckily, you don’t need to run around too much while thinking how to solve a puzzle.
This is another area where similarities to Braid are hard to avoid. Vessel uses an expressive 2D art style, which allows for some awesome vistas of scenery. The camera work in Vessel is fantastic, zooming out to show you a cool skyline of this hybrid naturalist / steampunk world or panning over to give you a great visual overview of a puzzle before you get to work.
The game’s steampunk art style is both beautiful and functional. All the stonework, giant brass gears, and clunking machinery give the game a strong visual identity, but also do a great job of expressing visually how the machinery works. As you find a new dormant machine, your eyes can sweep across the screen and make connections — this gear connects to that, this button operates this latch, and so forth. You can almost hear the synapses in your head fire as you mentally put the pieces together.
Vessel’s controls are the only aspect of the game that don’t click perfectly. While most of the game’s puzzles don’t require precision jumps, a healthy amount require a minimum of jumping around and hitting switches. Even that can be tricky, as the game’s edge detection and funky character physics can mean that even if you know how to solve a puzzle, it’ll go awry because you accidentally smooshed a Fluro or couldn’t get up a ladder in time because your dude kept falling off for no reason. In a game that hits every other note perfectly, it’s a bummer to butt heads against the controls, but it’s far from a game-destroying problem.
Just like Portal 2, Vessel is about a universally recommended game as can exist. It’s charming, entertaining, stimulating, and a hell of an experience for the price point. While the fuzzy platforming can be a little annoying, it’s a relatively small fly in a ton of awesome ointment. If you enjoy learning or accomplishing, this is the game for you.