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Indie Game of the Week 155: Vaporum

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The Legend of Grimrock franchise may be on indefinite hiatus, but it's opened a few doors (by putting rocks down on the right pressure plates, naturally) for other cautious developers wondering if their idea for an old-school first-person tile-based dungeon crawler might find an audience. Then there's the way the Indie sphere has grown to the point now where any pre-existing genre (and many that had yet to exist) has some amount of modern representation, but it's in the nature of throwbacks to luxuriate in the past more often than figuring out ways to keep elevating and modernizing these creaky formats.

Happily, Vaporum has more ideas than simply "Dungeon Master was kinda rad." In addition to an uncommon steampunk aesthetic where the walls are all riveted steel plates and serpentine pipes leading to and from destinations unknown in lieu of the usual grey mildew-y walls, the game's taken the time to figure out how to move the genre forward with a few smart mechanical flourishes. For one, it's chosen not to shy away from the "combat waltz" issue with these real-time games: the technique where you constantly juke around your foe in a circle so they cannot land an attack, while you get a swing in every time they move back into range. Instead, most of the enemies of Vaporum - the especially maneuverable ones at least - have various tricks to make the combat waltz work for them instead. Others use AoE attacks to hit you even when you're on a diagonal space away from them, and the game's also very fond of dropping a large number of enemies around you at once to force you to think tactically. To assist the player, the game has an optional "turn-based" mode where the discrete fractions-of-a-second required for movement and weapon attacks move time forward the appropriate amount but the player is otherwise in stasis as they ponder their next move. This is also invaluable for timing-based puzzles like switches that only temporarily open doors or using alcoves to stay out of reach of a stream of fireballs whizzing down a corridor. Whether this is in aid of alleviating the suffering of those who don't have the reflexes for these types of traps, or an excuse to make scenarios with even tighter timing, or both, is unclear but it's a fantastic addition regardless.

This jerk with the laser will kill you in seconds if it points that beam at you. The beam even hits you as the drone turns around and sweeps the room. The idea is to keep moving around it, but sometimes that's not always easy (especially if there's a second one). Using the
This jerk with the laser will kill you in seconds if it points that beam at you. The beam even hits you as the drone turns around and sweeps the room. The idea is to keep moving around it, but sometimes that's not always easy (especially if there's a second one). Using the "pause time" feature here is highly recommended.

In Vaporum, the player assumes the role of an amnesiac sailor who finds himself deposited outside an impressive metal edifice out on a remote rock cropping. After entering the structure, it doesn't take long for this sailor to find and equip an "exo-rig": a suit powered by an unknown technology that has the capacity for modular incremental improvements - in other words, you're not so much earning XP for your protagonist but collecting more of this mysterious power source from fallen enemies that the suit then incorporates to increase its capabilities. The game is replete with audio logs and written journals from the people who once worked there, giving you as much background into the Arx Vaporum - as this tower was known - as you could want, as well as hints as to your own identity and an explanation as to why the place has become an eerie deathtrap devoid of people. I've come to anticipate new tidbits of lore as much as I do new equipment or handy (but finite) consumables, and the mystery of Vaporum - though at times familiar, especially if you've played BioShock - is a compelling one to unpack. At its heart though, it's every bit the dedicated Dungeon Master/Grimrock successor: the majority of the time you're either surviving tough monster encounters or figuring out which combination of switches, levers, pressure plates, pushable boxes, and teleporters will get you to the next floor of the titular tower.

Getting back to those mechanics, though, as the game has a lot of them; ranging from major distinctive features to small but appreciated quality-of-life touches. In addition to the usual modern conveniences of a save anywhere feature (though it only auto-saves on floor transitions, so be wary of that) and dedicated bindings for health (the game calls it "integrity," referring to the condition of the exo-rig) and energy restoratives respectively, there are two equipment loadouts that the player can instantaneously switch between at any time. I think the idea is to have one for range - there's firearms in the game, and though they need ammunition there are enough gun-toting enemies that regularly drop some - and then one for melee when foes get close enough. Gadgets work like spells would normally in a game like this: they require energy to use, which slowly recharges over time, and can produce offensive single-target or AoE elemental attacks, or buffs like increased melee speed and shielding. If you choose to spec towards gadget use, you'll unlock additional slots for them, giving you a great deal of versatility. On the Switch version at least, interact commands automatically lock on to relevant locations (levers, chests) but not to hidden buttons, to which you have to manually move the cursor over yourself. The game can't make its secrets too easy for you to find, after all. Speaking of which, there's an option to eliminate the mini-map if you want to pen-and-paper cartography your way through the game old-school style.

My current floor. Whole lotta spider-bots. Worst ones are those that spit acid everywhere.
My current floor. Whole lotta spider-bots. Worst ones are those that spit acid everywhere.

I've been really impressed with Vaporum so far. The ingenuity of its encounters - though there's more than a few rough customers - makes every battle one that requires your wits and reflexes at their fullest. Figuring out how best to upgrade my exo-rig for my playstyle - which starts by having you choose four distinct archetypes, from melee-heavy brawlers to the more gadget-focused "mage" class - has been a process of agonizing over what I want to prioritize most, which so far for me has involved a lot of dual-wielding and evasion skills. The game's bolts-and-steel aesthetic looks great with some subtle variance in environment details and luminescent hues between floors, and it nails the spooky atmosphere this particular sub-genre thrives on especially with regards to distant enemy noises as early warning signs and ambient sounds from unclear sources adding to the location's mystique. It's certainly not been an easy game, but as I still have a few spare repair kits in reserve on my Normal difficulty playthrough it's evidently balanced enough. Looks to be a reasonable length also: I'm about 6-7 hours in and I think I'm around the midway point. Honestly, the few issues I have either relate to my own dubious decision of playing a mouse-and-keyboard type of RPG on the Switch (the various "ZL+A" key-bindings aren't too unintuitive, but they still took some getting used to) and that no effort was made to adjust the script to suit the steampunk time period (though this isn't necessarily set on Earth, so I suppose there's no reason these Victorian-era scientists can't say "dude" a lot). Minor and/or self-imposed quibbles, in so many words. If you mourned the passing of Grimrock like I did, know that there are other Indie developers out there who are just as adroit in "getting" games of this nature.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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