Vaporum Review: Not Quite BioShock or Grimrock
Your character, an amnesiac, stumbles across a huge tower near the ocean. Inside, you locate a world of gears and machinery, a powerful suit that grants you abilities, and all sorts of mechanical baddies. Your abilities are akin to magic, but they actually stem from impressive technology instead of mana or midi-chlorians.
Would you kindly stop thinking about BioShock?
We're talking about Vaporum, a throwback to the dungeon crawlers of yesteryear, set in a world that looks remarkably like Bioshock's Rapture.
The game originally released on PC in 2017, but it has found its way onto the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It's got some appeal to a certain type of gamer, but it won't speak to every type of gamer, even those that have played it on PC.
Towers in the Ocean
Vaporum is a love letter to a bygone genre — the grid-based, first-person puzzle game. Legend of Grimrock also fit into this style, and both of these games hearken back to classics like Wizardry, Eye of the Beholder, and the original Might and Magic.
Even though it looks like a typical first-person view, your character can not move about freely. Instead, you are locked into a grid; pressing forward will move you into the next box, just like moving spaces in a board game. This puts the focus much more on puzzle solving and positioning rather than elaborate combat.
That's not to say that Vaporum lacks in this department, though: you will fight a lot of enemies in your time with the game. However, those fights play out with much more strategy and careful planning (you can stop time in combat to plan your next move, for example) than frenetic action.
Unfortunately, Vaporum's combat never really captures the essence of what makes that great. By the end of the game, you'll most likely have realized that the best strategy for beating your repetitive foes is to just max out your character's "Integrity," which is increases how much damage you can take.
Switch and Block Puzzles
It's unfortunate because a lot of Vaporum's combat ideas seem strong. Your character has access to ranged and melee attacks, as well as a series of gadgets that function like magic spells (or plasmids, if we're going to stay on that track). However, there aren't too many situations where you'll be forced to approach combat differently once you figure out your basic strategies.
That would be fine, as the exploration and puzzle solving aspects of Vaporum are pretty strong. There's quite a bit of thought put into the many different levels you'll encounter, and puzzles rarely overstay their welcome. There are secrets to uncover, huge swaths of the game you can skip entirely if you don't want to deal with them, and a large number of customization options to help make Vaporum as old-school as you want.
Part of the appeal of this classic genre was keeping a notebook beside you, drawing maps and making notes as you went. Vaporum will let you do that as much or as little as you like — you can turn on or off the mapping feature, for example, or check another screen to see how many secrets you have left to uncover on your current floor.
This customization helps address one of Vaporum's biggest issues.
Square Peg, Round Hole
Not to rain on anyone's parade, but there seems to be a good reason that this style of game mostly died out as hardware improved: a lot of these systems are convoluted. Drawing your own map to compare with your friends was great, but now we have the internet to take care of that. Without that level of personalization, there just isn't that much to do in a game like Vaporum.
It could be saved if the combat were better, but it gets repetitive early and never really recovers. It could also be saved if the story kept you engrossed, but it's fairly tired and predictable. The voice acting is... well, it's certainly there. Without some other compelling aspect to keep you driven to explore, you're just wandering around a bunch of boiler rooms.
This is also a genre that just doesn't feel right on consoles. The grid-based mechanics are definitely designed for keyboard play. Tapping forward on the analog stick is a very imprecise action — more than once I would blunder into a trap that I knew was there because my character moved forward two squares instead of one.
Couple that with the absolutely useless "look" button, and you are left wondering if maybe you should load Vaporum up on Steam instead of your console.
For Specific Tastes Only
- Lots of customization options
- Solid puzzles
- A strong tribute to a lost genre
- Doesn't fit well on consoles
- Combat gets repetitive
- Story and voice acting are not impressive
That said, Vaporum certainly is not a bad game. It is just targeted at a very specific audience, and the console port is there just to, well, grab some extra bucks out of a completed game?
If this is a genre you remember with fondness, Vaporum is certainly a solid throwback. If you want to slow things down a bit and enjoy a change of pace with your games, you could do a lot worse than booting this one up.
Overall, however, the way to play a game like this is on a PC if you have the option. There's good stuff here, but there is a much better way to experience it.
[Note: A copy of Vaporum was provided by Fatbot Games for the purpose of this review.]