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Vaporum Review — An Approachable Balance of Adventure and Intricacy

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Vaporum

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.

Legend of Grimrock made waves as a modernised version of PC RPGs’ past.

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

Vaporum’s console interface is only slightly busier than this interface was on PC.

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.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.

Mitchell is a writer from Currawang, Australia, where his metaphorical sword-pen cleaves fiction from reality daily. When he's not writing, he plays video games and watches movies. While thinking about writing.

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Review

SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead

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The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.

SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.

As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.

The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.

Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.

Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.

The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.

Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.

Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.

SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.

The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.

The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.

The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.

SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

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