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Games have always had a certain obsession with water. Water is notoriously difficult to model, so game designers have sought all sorts of tricks to make it look more realistic. Early attempts were often simple flat planes, with a change of the color palette (and sound effects) to indicate when the player was submerged. Later, pre-made looped animations could create impressive waterfalls or rivers, but these failed to respond believably when the player or another object interrupted the flow. Even modern games like Skyrim use different methods to make the water look and feel realistic with varying degrees of success; advanced mathematics determine how the liquid surface reflects light, which looks stunning, but most bodies of water are still flat planes with canned wave animations. Water that actually behaves realistically is virtually unheard of in games.
Things are moving ever forwards, of course. From Dust has some pretty cool water and lava physics, and fancy new graphics tech can render some fantastic-looking water in real time, although it’s not in any games yet. But while realistic water in a three-dimensional environment may still be in the early stages, some two-dimensional games already offer real fluid dynamics. Vessel is such a game.
The various liquids in Vessel really are a joy to see in motion. Water doesn’t quite work like it does in real life — it’s a bit too goopy — but it’s still great fun to just splash around in it, and watch it spill into puddles and run down surfaces. This is a good thing, because fluid physics is pretty much the point of Vessel. The game offers a series of puzzles to be solved by manipulating liquids in interesting ways. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that, because the scientist protagonist has invented semi-sentient creatures made out of liquid, called Fluros (which I could not resist pronouncing as if it were a Spanish word). These creatures are generally helpful, operating on simple artificial intelligence routines, and can be created from various liquids to assist with the puzzles. This makes for some really interesting puzzle design; one must not only consider the best way to manipulate the excellent fluid physics to one’s advantage, but also how to trick the various Fluros into doing one’s bidding, be it pushing buttons at the right time or simply ferrying liquid to an area that the scientist can’t reach himself.
The story about the Fluros is more of a framework than an actual narrative, however, a simple excuse for puzzles more than anything else. But I did enjoy the fact that the overarching goal is to collect various components to allow the scientist to complete his massive, final experiment (the execution of which acts as the game’s last puzzle, of course), as this really fit with the steampunk-like feel of the game. The various factories and mines in the game are obvious puzzles rather than believable locations — filled with nonsensical constructions that can only be bypassed with the help of various Fluros — but they sure do look pretty. I guess it’s not exactly a steampunk world, because steam is only used on a few occasions. Hydropunk, maybe? But it’s still packed with needlessly large machinery, full of pipes and massive gears that both look and sound fantastic. The camera is wonderfully responsive, zooming smoothly in on the protagonist in small corridors and later panning out to show the full majesty of a new machine. Which, of course, is also a puzzle. But it’s a puzzle with big fancy gears and levers!
In fact, much of my time in Vessel was spent moving the little scientist around between various components of a puzzle, pressing buttons and pulling levers. Usually this contributed to the excellent mechanical feel of the world, as I made the giant machines come to life by rotating giant gears and cranks. But it did become tedious on occasion, especially when I’d figured out what needed to be done but still had to run all over the screen to push all the buttons. The actual movement controls are a little clunky (jumping especially), but this was not a big problem when I was just navigating around without any real threat. In the rare cases where actual platforming feats were required, however, it became rather frustrating. But on the whole I quite liked the puzzles, which are varied and slowly introduce new types of liquid and new types of Fluros (with different behaviors) without becoming too daunting. I only got stuck on a couple of occasions, but many puzzles can be skipped over and returned to later if the player is having trouble, and a handful are completely optional. For the vast majority of the game I was happily solving puzzles in order, occasionally stopping to ponder the solution before I figured it out. I did find that the later puzzles got a little too fiddly, though; I liked them in concept but not as much in execution.
The optional parts consist of tougher puzzles, and it’s here that the aggravating platforming usually came into play. The reward for completing these sections is protoplasm, a special type of liquid that’s used to buy upgrades for the scientist’s liquid-squirting apparatus. Annoyingly, it’s quite possible to squirt protoplasm around at other times and waste it, but fortunately the upgrades are all completely optional anyway. I’d argue that increasing the size of the scientist’s portable liquid tank and upping the pressure on the basic nozzle helps avoid a lot of headaches, but the alternate nozzles are more of a novelty. They can be useful in some situations, but I stuck to the basic nozzle most of the time. These upgrades are purchased in the scientist’s lab, using a suitably ridiculous machine that involves all sorts of cranks and buttons. The lab acts as a hub between levels and can be visited at any time from the menu screen, which can be nice when a specific upgrade seems in order. It’s also where the scientist’s giant experimental reactor resides, and watching it slowly come together over the course of the game gives a great sense of progression.
Really, though, this is all just icing on the cake. The fluid physics is the star of the show, and the puzzles provide plenty of opportunities to show it off. Chutes, drains, basins and the like are scattered everywhere, waiting to be filled with liquids of all types, and the liquids themselves never lose their charm. If you’ve ever splashed around in a puddle just for the fun of it, you will likely enjoy Vessel. It’s fairly lengthy too and there’s a (Steam-only) demo available if you’re undecided. Give it a shot. You know, for science.
EDIT: The Indie Platformer Marathon is now complete! See all the posts here.