I have a friend who was receiving a bunch of submissions for a design competition who complained that there should be a note to would-be indie devs: cut it out with the moody platformers. Indeed, the darkly-lit, grim puzzle-platformer has become the black and white student film of game development—deeply personal, occasionally emotionally impenetrable, and really more about some implied message than actual gameplay. And hey, there are some pretty fantastic puzzle platoformers out there, it just feels like for every Limbo, there some young designer's attempt to work through his parents' agonizing divorce with physics puzzles.
Thankfully, although full of the requisite dark and somewhat moody, my time with Strange Loop's Vessel isn't the buzzkill that its art style would imply. The chunk of gameplay on display here is the thing and there's a very, very solid physics-based puzzle game under the rain-drenched, cave-dwelling exterior.
According the Strange Loop site, in Vessel, you play as brilliant inventor M. Arkwright whose creation, the highly-mutable liquid "Fluro" which has integrated itself into every facet of modern, steam punk-y life. All of this background info isn't hugely present in the game, save for a clever intro featuring press clippings in Arkwright's lab and whatever inferences you can make from his objective-specific journal entries. But that's not really the conversation Vessel is trying to have with you as a gamer. Instead, it's strictly—refreshingly, even—about familiarizing you with its mechanics and getting down the the liquid physics core of the game.
As for that gameplay, in brief, it usually involves some combination of manipulating liquid Fluros (or in a bouncy, semi-sentient form), and toggling switches in the environments. A typical puzzle would involve finding the right means of flipping a switch in the floor so that you could then activate the spout containing the Fluro fluid so that your newl-created Fluro could, in turn sit on a pressure pad on the floor so that you can get through a doorway (generally).
The physics are a bit exaggerated, giving Arkwright a somewhat floaty jump, jets of water shooting out of pipes seemingly at half-speed. The whole thing feels... wobbly? But not necessarily in a bad way. It's consistent, so when you acclimate to the way the game handles, it's never a problem. As for the world itself, there are plenty of steampunk accents to the fixtures and to the look of Arkwright himself (I'm almost certain that name is from the original Steampunk for "science guy with sideburns"), but there's not a huge surplus of personality besides that.
WHAT'S GOOD ABOUT IT (SO FAR)?
The hand-holding is kept to the bare minimum
Strange Loop just throws you right into their game, and with the exception of the occasional explanatory button prompt (press A to activate) and the journal entries, you're pretty much left to your own devices to figure out the environment and the game. It's a sure sign of a confident designer when he or she makes the deliberate decision to trust that you can figure out the particulars of their game.
Love the dub-style soundtrack
Doom doom doom doom doom doom. Doom doom doom doom doom doom-doom. I don't know if I'll remember the Vessel soundtrack come end of year, but it's pitch-perfect for the laid-back feel of the game.
WHAT'S BAD ABOUT IT (SO FAR)?
The physics can take a minute to get used to
This really is kind of a non-issue, but it may take you a couple of seconds to get used to how the game handles, particularly since it has you manipulating water. I only bring it up because the internal math that tells you, "Hey, this is the way a jet of water moves" might be put off initially by some of the effects here.
From what I've played, Vessel is simply a very solid puzzle platformer, nothing more. But I don't mean that as a dig, or at least, not really. Yes, it lacks some kind of memorable visual hook or feel, but it's never bland—just the combination of images that your mind would immediately conjure up once you heard the words "steampunk platformer." With action more invested in pushing the game's mechanics than a narrative (or meta narrative about platformers, or... whatever), Vessel seems simply free to be a solid platformer. About liquids.
Vessel will be available on Windows PCs March 1st for $14.99 on Steam and via StrangeLoopGames.com with XBLA and PSN versions to follow at a later date.