Vaporum (PS4) Review
Release Date: April 9, 2019 (PS4, staggered release through the 11th)
Publisher/Developer: Merge Games/Fatbot Games
Platform: Steam, newly released for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
You awaken on a mysterious island with no memory from before. In front of you is a giant monolith that draws you in. A mysterious door opens and you begin your journey. As you delve deeper into the labyrinth you slowly learn more about yourself and the link you have with this strange place.
Vaporum is a traditional dungeon crawler with a steampunk twist. With the dark haunting hallways and mechanical constructs, the atmosphere of this grid based exploration adventure evokes the tone of the original Bioshock. Having released on PC in September 2017, Vaporum has now been ported to the modern consoles of your choice.
The game may look modern but it holds it's heritage on it's sleeve. You play as a single person in first-person perspective as you delve through dank dungeon levels and face off against mechanized or mutated enemies. The unique style of play allows you to live in a step-by-step real time scenario. Enemies move at a step-by-step pace so you can match their pace but they are relentless. If you find yourself particularly overwhelmed you can turn on a more turn-based movement where everyone gets a turn at the same time. I really liked this twist given how frantic the gameplay can get when multiple enemies are swarming you.
In each level you will run across combat scenarios as well as puzzles. Most of the puzzles are rather simple (push a block into a hole, find this key to open that door) but others can be obtuse (took me a while to find out I had to physically block an electrical charge that looked like it'd kill me to let a door open properly). Weaponry is thematically appropriate (such as finding a crowbar that happened to belong to some guy named Gordon, as well as guns for ranged attacks) and you can arm yourself across both hands. Take a melee and ranged weapon, or put a shield in one hand to protect yourself. You'll also run across plenty of lore dumps (letters and audio recordings) that help you better understand the world.
Soon after you begin you will choose a particular armor that changes your loadout. You can be a tank that rushes in to crush things or a long range attacker that uses gadgets, Vaporum's equivalent of ranged magic attacks. At least near the beginning, battles can be frustrating. Small enemies will rush you and can corner you in large numbers, which can be hard to keep track of in your grid based, 90-degree head turning field of vision. When those little guys can take four or five hits to down, all with a risk of flat out missing, it can drive you nuts. The pause-time mode is put to good use here as you can think your solution through and slip by the enemy rather than just take damage. Some enemies are smart and can effect squares with poisons or such so you're doing more than hopping back and forth across squares (a strategy that works for a lot of games in this genre). You'll need to watch your health, as healing items are few and far between.
I actually had an error in the game at first that put how Vaporum progresses in terms of saving in perspective for me though. (NOTE: This was a PS4 error and NOT an in-game glitch or thing you should expect!) We had a power outage recently at my house right before I started playing. The PS4 was asleep but downloading. Apparently somewhere in there it glitched my save file a bit. I was able to fix the issue after troubleshooting and learning how to rebuild my database, but my first experience with the game I had zero way to save. And I died. Frequently. Which booted me back to the beginning. Again, this is NOT indicative of the game you will play, it was bad luck on my part. However, it did make me see the game differently as I played once my saves worked: they are very important. With the dark environment, I flat out walked into an instant death trap a few times. Finding a new enemy I would have to learn their patterns, which often led to noticeable health lost. Save-scumming became a habit for me. Sometimes I found myself reloading a section simply because I could have done it better, not that I died. I simply wouldn't have enough health to go on from that point. The save is a simple button combination that you are expected to do rather religiously. I got near the end of the first level and saved, killed three or four enemies, and got stuck on a puzzle for a bit. Walked the whole map and ended up getting offed by the one random enemy I left somewhere. Since I hadn't saved, I was back before my big battle. The game relies on saves and gives no mercy to people who aren’t prone to save after every little encounter. .
Controls felt a little sloppy in my play time. Given that you are on a grid based system moving one unit at a time I found turns to be too quick. Often I'd click one time to rotate 90 degrees and end up doing a 180 instead. As time went on I became more sensitive to it, but it still led to frustration as I'd usually be holding forward for my next step only to go in the wrong direction. This was particularly noticeable in combat when every step matters.
Vaporum takes the classic dungeon crawler game and injects it with modern amenities. The graphics are beautifully done, albeit notably dark throughout. Enemies can attack in real time or you can slow it down for a more strategic approach. The variety of attacks require you to think outside the box to get past poisonous panels and such. The steampunk genre adds a variety not usually seen in dungeon crawlers which usually lean on medieval or anime tropes. My biggest surprise came in how I went into the game feeling it would be a scarefest but the darkness and mechanical monsters add more to a feeling of dread than a full on shock value. Vaporum definitely nails it's atmosphere and draws you in to find out what comes next.
Overall, I've enjoyed my time with Vaporum, but the little inconsistencies make it hard to want to come back to. I feel the game relies too much on making sure you save so you can retry particularly hard parts, and it feels unfair to be pinned into a corner with multiple enemies and no real way out. I'd love the controls to be tightened up a bit. The strategy in the dance is very satisfying to pull off when it works, and there is plenty of lore to find and dig deeper.
-Wonderful amalgamation of steampunk and classic tile-based dungeon crawling
-The choice between live combat and a more paced turn-based system is unique and welcome
-Deep amount of lore for those who want to get invested
-Can get overwhelmed by large ambushes of enemies in tight spaces
-Puzzles seem to be glaringly obvious or frighteningly obtuse
-Sloppy analog sticks can be frustrating
-Trial and error can lead to save scumming
Special thanks to Merge Games/Fatbot Games for providing a code for review!