Indie games and I haven’t exactly been the best of friends. I’ve been looking for a good indie title, though – one that can suck me in and compel me to delve deeper into the indie scene. I may have found that game in Vessel.
A physics-based puzzle platformer, Vessel challenged me in ways only a few other games have in the past. My cognitive skills and understanding of real physics were put to the test, something I’d never have expected from an independent title. Only big budget titles, I thought, are supposed to leave me truly in awe of what I had accomplished. If this is what indie games are capable of, then I apparently have no idea what I’ve been missing.
Vessel focuses on the use of water to solve its many puzzles, both normal water and semi-intelligent water-based beings known as Fluros. Both are equally unpredictable; normal water’s natural fluidity will cause some chaos, and the Fluros offer no predictable movement other than hating lights and always wanting to turn them off. Vessel requires that both of these chaotic entities bend to the player’s will in order to progress, which is no small task considering the complexity of the puzzles it presents.
That’s where the beauty of Vessel shines through; the chaos that must be controlled is a perfect parallel to the fluidity of the puzzles that must be solved. Puzzles as complex as these are not finite, there is no one solution. There will be different methods to the madness, but all of them will lead to the same result. I’d bet good money that two players could spend an entire day talking about the different ways they progressed through Vessel, just as people would talk about the different story paths they experienced in a game like Heavy Rain. By presenting puzzles based on controlling the chaos of water, Vessel also creates a flood of different ways to solve them.
As if the idea of controlling water weren’t daunting enough, the incredible physics engine makes the water’s movement feel authentic; the liquid runs down walls and shoot across rooms with lifelike animation. My mind was blown plenty of times watching the water ebb and flow down drains or through pipes just like in the real world. Even the Fluros, despite being living things, are hampered by their molecular structure: one puzzle found me luring a Fluro around a drain grate, lest he seep right through and turn back into just plain water.
While impressive, this physics engine is also a source of great frustration, making the controls loose and uncooperative. A perfect example for my anger comes from the puzzle pictured above: As you can see, the Fluro on the switch is controlling the water hose directly next to the switch, and I’m required to aim all of these contraptions so that the tank at the very top fills with water, creating an item I need. Turning these hoses became such a chore than I had to step away from the game for a bit and come back to it. The slightest deviation from where the hose needed caused the water to shoot too low or high, which is bad enough with just one hose. Four hoses makes for a lot of back-and-forth, which just isn’t enjoyable. There are plenty of other obstacles that make Vessel a challenge, including Fluros that take on different properties (like molten metal instead of water), but it’s the kinetics that will be the biggest source of anger.
While Vessel is all about the puzzles, the steampunk aesthetics are just as remarkable. The game’s factory, forests, and mining tunnels are all beautifully illustrated settings, with light playing a huge part in characterizing the environment. The underground areas of the factory are particularly well done, as the gloom and darkness surrounding the player fill an eerie and lonely place that I wouldn’t want to dwell in. The musical score does a great job of adding to the world Vessel creates, as its layered electronic melodies can be serene at times and tense at others. You’ll know when to really concentrate once the music takes a serious turn.
Its technical prowess serves as a blessing and a curse, as the powerful physics engine is both fantastic and frustrating. In both cases, though, Vessel serves as a shining example of what indie developers can accomplish. The puzzles are brilliant, the tech is astounding, and the aesthetics are incredible. Above all else, Vessel has proven one thing: My ignorance of indie games is no longer an option. It’s time for me to really dig into what these people are producing.
PC gamers can experience it now, and console players can wait until the games hits Xbox LIVE and the PlayStation Network (release date TBA). Either way, Vessel is definitely worth the time.
Review based on PC release.