Releasing on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch this week, Vaporum is a console-friendly port of a PC dungeon-RPG from 2017, and single-player console gamers are going to want to pick this one up.
For those unfamiliar with the venerable genre, the dungeon-RPG evolved from technical limitations placed on early PC role-playing games. Bits and pieces will be recognisable to RPG players of all stripes, but, in modern times, the style of game has been revived with a focus on those old-school features.
Played on a grid and from a first-person viewpoint, characters in a dungeon-RPG move one square at a time. Recent examples include the Etrian Odyssey series, Severed, and the Legend of Grimrock games. That last one is the most relevant, as Vaporum, subtitled the ‘Steampunk Dungeon Crawler,’ is a superb example of putting a twist on an existing game while borrowing heavily from another. Vaporum is Legend of Grimrock meets BioShock in many more ways than you might expect.
Grimrock, of course, remained a PC exclusive for good reason. When the sting of PC’s dark days was still strong, Grimrock gained traction as a lovable throwback to the action- and puzzle-focused dungeon-RPG as a big, wonderfully presented, modern PC game—as opposed to the also excellent but smaller examples of the genre on Nintendo’s handhelds. Furthermore, the games are great fun without being what the industry has grown to call AAA, either—at the heart of Grimrock‘s small dev team is a quirky indie spirit.
Yes, Grimrock and its sequel are of a rare quality, but both games’ interfaces are made with mouse and keyboard in mind (or perhaps a touch-screen, such as on tablets, with some adjustments). Their parties include controlling four characters at the same time, inventory management, and other functions such as gesture-based magic crafting that would require significant restructure to work on a controller.
Vaporum, however, makes clear how that transition might happen. Vaporum runs with almost everything Grimrock brought to the table back in 2012, to make the case for PC dungeon-RPGs. Menus, interaction, map design, modern graphics (with some excellent moody lighting, too) are all direct pulls from Grimrock, but on the micro scale are important changes that, without a doubt, are part of why Vaporum was considered for a console port.
Players in Vaporum control a single character who wears a Big Daddy-esque exploration rig that manages health, equipment, and a series of plasmid-like gadgets that mix things up. Combat combines these gadgets with various other weapons: improvised and intentional, melee and long range. Inventory management is perhaps the least controller-friendly at first, since it requires fiddling around a grid with a cursor, but almost everything else is converted smoothly.
The left stick can be used as with most first-person games to step forward, backward, and strafe side-to-side, with turning mapped to the right stick. During combat, aiming is based on positioning (which also means players can often dodge melee attacks by moving to a different square), and all but one of the cursor functions can be snapped to using the D-pad. Some of Vaporum‘s secrets are still pixel-hunts, but the secrets are also non-essential by design, so, if sliding a cursor around with the left stick sounds boring, the game can still be played without doing so.
Even allowing for two different weapon sets equipped at once, Vaporum‘s combat halves the overhead compared to Grimrock‘s four-player parties. Because of the reduced number of combatants, the game moves at a faster pace almost akin to an action-RPG.
That Whole Steampunk Thing…
I try to see language as descriptive, so I will not sully the review with comments about ‘not really being steampunk’. Truth is, as the great Chris Hemsworth put it, “all words are made up,” and, in this case, the game uses the term steampunk in particular to evoke its aesthetic.
In terms of Vaporum‘s themes and core narrative, the game is a bit less steam and not a whole lot punk, and these are not the core appeal of a dungeon-RPG to begin with. I enjoy the weird fiction elements of Vaporum‘s world, again clearly inspired by BioShock‘s similarly loose interpretation of the ‘steampunk’ concept. For what it is worth, Vaporum‘s trappings are more than enough for this sort of game, and executed with confidence and style.
Better than the more actionised combat is the option to pause time between all player actions. This breather can be essential in the early floors of the Arx Vaporum, the game’s dungeon setting, when one is still getting to grips with the controls.
Even later on, though, it remains useful for the more demanding timing-based puzzles. The pause-time function allows almost anyone to play Vaporum at their own pace, which means RPG fans can give it a go without fear of hitting a difficulty wall. (The game also boasts plenty of options to change difficulty and the controls to suit different players’ styles.)
Despite ease-of-play on a console, players will not get past the fact that Vaporum is still a slower and more retro style of game—some players will just bounce right off its rigid structure, as well as the aforementioned Steampunk niggle. Personally, one could have even less story in a dungeon game such as Vaporum. As with another recently reviewed RPG, the temptation to elaborate on worldbuilding is stronger with an RPG and can by the same token sink an otherwise interesting game, if the lore is too laborious. Many writers tend to overvalue story in games, and over-criticise as well, so the fact that Vaporum stands as fun game with added lore that avoids interfering with the nuts-and-bolts is commendable.
Modern gamers who do dare to delve will likely get a kick out of exploring the crunchier aspects of old-school dungeon design, though they will also have to learn to keep their eyes open and not rush in, as traps and the aforementioned secrets abound. Old-school fans: this one is a little more simplistic than the heights that the genre once climbed to, but with an open mind—and maybe activating that hard mode—Vaporum still features plenty to enjoy.
The most impressive aspect of the game goes beyond its effective console port. The game is “small” in the indie sense, not made by hundreds but by a core team of four developers. Nevertheless, the game’s graphical presentation, attention to detail, and handcrafted design are all so instantly appealing that plenty of AAA gamers who give it a go will surely find themselves hooked. Also, definitely tell that friend who likes BioShock that another kick of spooky, clanking, clockwork mystery is available to jump into.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.