I'm a sucker for physics-based gameplay. The joy I get from watching things tumble about in a realistic manner is not unlike the joy a small child receives from tumbling a stack of wooden blocks. Throw in liquid-physics and I'm even more excited, which is why I was pretty eager to try out Vessel.
Vessel, available for PC via Steam, is the freshman effort of Seattle-based indie dev Strange Loop Games. They spent more than three years working on the game, including building a custom engine that specializes in physics and fluid simulation. If Vessel is any indicator of what's to come, they're most definitely a developer to keep an eye on.
You play a scientist by the name of M. Arkwright, inventor of the Fluro, a liquid automaton. Fluros are comprised of liquid (often water), centered around a core "seed" which gives it life. These Fluros are extremely popular to use as workers - they perform flawlessly, they never tire, and if they get hurt, they can be healed through exposure to additional liquid. Yes, M. Arkwright's invention changed the world. Except now the Fluros have gotten out of hand and their chaos is preventing Arkwright from completing his masterpiece - a mysterious creation known as The Accelerator. If the inventor is going to finish his project, he'll have to stop all of the rogue fluros and undo the damage they've done.
Vessel's steampunk framework houses one of the most original games of the year. If it has to be fit into a genre, it would fall between action and puzzler; sometimes it's more of the former, sometimes the latter. Either way, it's consistently fun and sometimes relentlessly challenging.
Over the course of the game you'll encounter different liquids - water, lava, blue goo to name a few - all with different properties. You'll also gain access to different seeds, allowing you to create different fluros that behave in various ways. Some like to push buttons, some are hungry for more liquid, and some just want to see you die. You'll also get equipment that allows you to store and disperse liquid, and as the game goes on you'll get various containers that carry different kinds, until eventually you're equipped to solve any puzzle the game throws at you.
A Flurry of Fluros
While it's a blast learning how to use the fluros to solve puzzles, the real fun begins when you're forced to use different fluros in conjunction with one another, manipulating the different fluros based on their behaviors. Each time you add a new seed or liquid type to your arsenal, there's a short learning curve, but once you get the various types down, the game absolutely clicks.
While I have a few very minor nitpicks, the only real issue is the sometimes unresponsive controls, which can turn even the simplest platforming segments into a frustrating test of patience. Fortunately there isn't any fall damage, as I would constantly miss platforms and fall quite a ways.
That brings me to another, lesser issue, and that's the mysterious damage I would take every now and then. Certain things can hurt you, such as lava, explosions, and mechanical traps, but every so often, I would take damage from an unknown source, like if I fell just the right way. I never died like this, which makes it more of an annoyance than an actual problem, but it's worth mentioning all the same.
Early Game of the Year Contender
The best thing about Vessel is that for $14.99, you get a solid 10 hours of gameplay, probably more if you get stuck on a puzzle or two. And every time it felt like the game was beginning to drag, it would introduce a new fluro to keep things fresh.
It's only April, but as of right now, I think Vessel might be my favorite game of the year. It tells a fun story with a beautiful visual style (and I'm not even a big steampunk fan) and boasts some of the most clever puzzle mechanics I've ever encountered. There's a demo available, so you can make sure it's your kind of game before taking the plunge. I strongly encourage you to check it out.