It seems a precarious juxtaposition that in 2012, a gamer can be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of quality 2D platformers. The genre has garnered momentum for many years as a result of the comparative ease of digital distribution, but tighter budgets and a generation-fatigue have made this an opportune time to pitch small and creative titles. From the unprecedented booming success of Angry Birds to the slow-burning Rayman Origins, 2D platformers are arguably at their most successful period since the early 90s.
Vessel does not follow this trend, but is rather a part of it. Three years of development have yielded a physics-based 2D puzzler, where the player manipulates fluids in a variety of ways in order to progress. Gradually, new resources to do so are implemented, which follows parallel to the progressive rise in difficulty. You play as a fluid engineer M. Arkwright, creator of the Fluros, fluid-based automatons that have disrupted the factories they were created to serve. The Fluros are focal to Vessel’s puzzles; each is an engine within the factories that must be fixed by manipulating the Fluros in an array of different ways.
The initial levels grant the player only the ability to run, jump and manipulate valves. As the levels (and difficulty) progress, the inventory begins to fill with tools such as portable Fluros and water guns. Early stages also solely feature water, however latter levels introduce the likes of molten iron and coloured fluids, bringing a new dimension to the puzzler’s depth. Combining molten iron and water will create steam to power turbines, for instance. The principles that Vessel adopts are far from complex, but the developers manipulate them tactfully in order to create cognitively-stimulating and genuinely rewarding puzzles. Strange Loop Games have produced a game that is as satisfying to progress through as the very best physics-based puzzlers such as Portal and Trine.
Unlike such hallmarks of the genre, Vessel suffers from poor character animation that often proves frustrated in latter levels. Arkwright walks and jumps extremely rigidly, meaning that swift keyboard-work can be undermined by undesirable jerking across platforms. When sharing travelators with tactically-placed molten iron, this can lead to unnecessary death or failure. Though largely forgivable, it’s an itch that never allows itself to be scratched, an omnipresent irritation that is easily forgotten, but always reprised. Fortunately the puzzles themselves focus more on rational logic, rather than time-critical action.
The creativity poured into individual puzzles forms the fundamental experience, however Strange Loop Games have created a seamless experience that gives Vessel a defined allure. The industrial artistic direction never takes itself too seriously, yet carries a sufficiently morbid tone, allowing the gamer to feel despondent and lonely despite the company of Arkwright’s Fluros. Their objective existence only serves to make our working-class hero feel isolated as he trawls the factory dungeons, clearing up this by-product of his own unrelenting ambition. Arkwright feels trapped, yet carries the burden of knowing it is he who trapped himself. A sublime ambient electronic soundtrack from the discography of composer Jon Hopkins accompanies this lonely work.
It’s difficult to criticize Vessel further because as a puzzler, its primary aim is to create challenging and exciting problems to solve. In this respect, it’s a unanimous success. Clocking in at between eight and ten hours, it’s also a fine DRM-free investment at $15 (or £11.99) on Steam. Whilst technically not as polished as recent 2D successes like Trine 2, Rayman Origins and Super Meat Boy, it has a strong enough USP with its Fluros to stand out from an increasingly-crowded yet creative genre that shows no signs of losing momentum.