Review – Vaporum

Eye of the Beholder on the SNES was my first CRPG. Venturing through the vast levels of Undermountain, tinkering with the unprecedented (at the time) number of classes and races available, the real-time combat against hordes of enemies, that game defined the genre. It showed me what video games could really do with the RPG genre, and I spent many a night slowly mapping my way towards the end. Vaporum is the latest in a long line of games to be built upon the pillars EotB set: exploration, customization, and combat. It manages to do a decent job living up to them too, even if a few design choices leave some things to be desired.

Exploration and the environment are the core pieces of this genre. If the environment isn’t interesting, the lore isn’t intriguing, and the puzzle mechanics don’t click, then there’s no base for anything else to build upon. Many dungeon crawlers fail right here at the opening lines, but fortunately Vaporum is not one of them. Right from the start, the steampunk sci-fi-ish style is a welcome change of pace from the usual fantasy fare. You’re exploring a giant mechanical tower located right on the middle of the ocean, and as you explore it, you slowly uncover what it is exactly, who you are, and how both of you are connected. This information is mostly conveyed though the tried and true method of lore books and audio logs. Everything is well-written and professionally voiced, and it sucks you right into the mystery.

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While this cinematic style is common with indies, Vaporum’s visual and sound quality are way above the competition.

Puzzles usually fall into two categories. They are either really hard, usually due to being completely nonsensical, or incredibly easy and barely justify their existence. Vaporum again beats the odds by being one of the very few games to straddle the very thin line between the two. There are some rough puzzles to be sure, mostly towards the end, as their are some very easy ones, but for the most part the puzzles strike a workable balance between effort and worth. Very rarely do you solve a puzzle and not feel you get exactly what you’d think you deserve for solving it.

Exploration may be the core for dungeon crawlers, but for the RPG genre as a whole, customization is where it’s at. It’s where a big part of the replayability comes from, between build-crafting or simply being able to change the way you play a game. For such a big part of the genre, it’s unfortunate this is where Vaporum falls short.

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Some traditions remain iron-clad.

There is a decent amount of customization available, no question. At the start of the game you choose from a group of exo-suits that essentially function as traditional D&D classes. There’s the gadget wielding “wizard”, the armored “fighter”, the utilitarian “rogue”, and so on. This is a permanent choice, so choosing wisely here would seem to be a game-defining choice. After playing a second time though, it doesn’t feel like it. There are definitely slight changes between them, less energy to play with, a bit more health, but the way you play the game remains exactly the same. The way you upgrade your equipment, the items you are allowed to equip, the gadgets you can use, and the stats you focus on are all the same. All exo-suits share the same skill trees as well, which seems like a real lost opportunity to introduce some diversity. The customization available is top of the line for sure, but it’s too limited especially when compared to others in the genre.

Combat is done in real time, but with a twist. While in real time you can swing, shoot, punch to your heart’s delight. It’s a pure action game, all you have to do is keep track of the grid movement. However, push a button and enter Vaporum’s pause mode, and things swing from action to strategy. It functions similarly to SUPERHOT, where enemies only move and attack as you do, which makes every action you perform count a lot more. You can switch between these modes whenever you want at a button press, and in my opinion this is the most enjoyable feature of this game. If chess had a third person dungeon crawler combat system, it would be something akin to Vaporum’s.

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Because the obvious way to make spiders less terrifying is to give them unlimited powah.

What is a combat system without hostile creatures to butcher though? Clockwork spiders, walking Tesla engines of electric death, entities that were once organic and are now more machine than anything else, the bestiary is unapologetically classic steampunk and I loved every new monster I encountered. I can’t tell you how nice it was to take a break from the usual fantasy fare, and instead wage digital war against flying lamps and their like. The best part about them allis how well they fit in with their surroundings. Not even the most outlandish enemy design breaks immersion. It’s just such a well-constructed world, where the lore, enemies, and level design all come together to form a simply well crafted game that knows what it wants to be and what it wishes to do.

Vaporum is a game that’s great at what it does and only suffers from what it never attempts. Exploration is well-balanced, customization accomplishes what it wants even if you know it could be more, and the combat is unique and just plain fun. The lack of a party to control is a bit of a shame as it would further spice up the pause mode combat system with more than one character in the game, and a lot of the bosses were more bullet sponges than strategic puzzles, but still this is a game that does far more right than wrong. Even in a time like this, where quality RPG experiences of all types are just falling from the sky, Vaporum is not one to miss.

Graphics: 7.5

While this is easily among the best looking games in this genre, with high quality and well designed textures for enemies and levels, the animation work is very much lacking and dare I say immersion breaking.

Gameplay: 7.0

While the core exploration and combat is a perfect example of the dungeon crawler genre done right, so-so characterization customization, lack of a party, and bullet sponge bosses bring the experience down.

Sound: 9.5

The voice acting is extremely professional, a rarity in the indie scene. The music is equally well done and does a fine job of maintaining the dark and creepy atmosphere of the Tower.

Fun Factor: 9.0

A dungeon crawler lives and dies on the quality of its environment, and The Tower surpasses all requirements. Combat is highly tactical against a wide variety of enemies, and the story is intriguing enough to keep you going.

Final Verdict: 8.0

Vaporum is available now on Steam, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.

Reviewed on PS4.

A copy of Vaporum was provided by the publisher.

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