Vaporum Review

Eschalon: Book II

Release Date:2017-09-28
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Introduction

Vaporum is the debut effort from Slovakian developer Fatbot Games.  It's being listed as a "Steampunk Dungeon Crawler," and that's pretty accurate.  One could also call it "Grimrock Lite," and that would be accurate as well but perhaps not as complimentary.  In any case, the game is a grid-based, real-time RPG where you explore a multi-level dungeon filled with monsters and puzzles, and where you slowly become more powerful so you can defeat a big, bad boss at the end.

As Vaporum opens up, you wake up next to a large tower, but you have no idea who you are, where you are, or what the tower is.  However, the tower opens up to you, so with nothing else on your agenda, you decide to go inside.  From there you have to explore the tower, evading and defeating its security measures as you slowly regain your memories and piece together what's going on and how it relates to you.  Then it's just a matter of escaping, which is easier said than done.

Character Development

You only control one character in Vaporum, and that character has to be male.  On the first level of the tower, you find three "exo rigs," and you're required to wear one of them as you explore.  The exo rigs are basically how you choose your class in the game, with "combat" (DPS), "heavy" (tank), or "thauma" (magic) being your options.

Interestingly, you don't improve your character as you defeat monsters and solve puzzles; you upgrade your rig.  So instead of having health, mana, spells and skills, you have integrity, energy, gadgets and circuits.  You also quickly discover that the tower is a research center for an alien substance called "fumium" (which can energize, upgrade, and manipulate objects), and instead of earning experience for killing creatures, you collect fumium from their remains, and it's fumium that allows your rig to become more powerful.  Sort of sadly though, since Vaporum is played using a first-person perspective, you never actually see your rig, and the game plays exactly like other RPGs, just with different words for familiar concepts.

There are nine circuits / skills for you to choose from: blunt weapons, blade weapons, handguns, rifles, dual wielding, armorer (which improves integrity), blocking, thauma catalyzer (which improves gadgets), and fusion conversion (which improves energy).  Circuits have five ranks.  Each rank improves the circuit in some way, but ranks 3 and 5 also give a special bonus.  For example, with dual wielding the regular ranks simply improve your accuracy in that mode, but rank 3 also improves your dual wielding speed, and rank 5 either allows you to dual wield two-handed weapons or steal integrity with your attacks.  You only gain about 15 circuit points in the game, so you can't learn everything.  You have to focus on a few circuits.

There are also several gadgets / spells for you to choose from.  You can equip two of them at the start of the game, and then if you invest in the thauma catalyzer and fusion conversion circuits, you can add up to two more.  Gadgets do things like deal damage, improve your defenses, and improve your attacks.  At the start of the game you only find "basic" versions of gadgets, but then eventually you uncover "advanced" and "superior" versions, which are more effective but require more energy.

I tried three different characters in Vaporum.  For my main playthrough I used a "combat" character with blunt weapons, blocking, and armorer.  Then I worked through the first few levels using a "heavy" dual-wielding swordsman and a "thauma" guns and gadgets expert.  The three characters played differently but not wildly so, and since all of the enemies and puzzles in the game are fixed, that leaves Vaporum's replay value a little limited -- unless you want to go for all of its achievements, since many of them (like dealing 1 million damage) require multiple playthroughs.

Gameplay

Vaporum uses a square-gridded environment, and you play using a first-person perspective, so the interface has a lot in common with RPGs of old (like Wizardry and Might & Magic) as well as some newer incarnations (like Legend of Grimrock).  You move and turn using the WASD and QE keys.  You attack with the mouse buttons (and since you only have one character, it doesn't matter where you click).  You switch weapons by pressing the Z key.  Repair kits (for restoring integrity) and energy cells (for restoring energy) use the R and T keys.  Gadgets are mapped to the 1-4 keys.  And you can quick save and load by pressing the F5 and F9 keys.  That is, the controls are pretty standard, and you're allowed to remap them however you see fit.

Vaporum is played in real time, and a certain amount of agility is required to defeat enemies and solve puzzles.  Luckily, enemies do not respawn and they don't wander far, so you just need to prepare for certain battles and puzzles, and you can relax in between.  Plus, you can save whenever you want, so if an action sequence goes poorly, you can just try again.


Of the RPGs I've played, Vaporum most resembles Legend of Grimrock.  The two games have a similar interface and a balance between fighting enemies and solving puzzles, and in both cases you're tasked with exploring a strange tower while figuring out what's going on.  However, Vaporum isn't just a clone.  It tries to do some things differently.

Consider combat.  In Legend of Grimrock, you could win most battles by performing the "Texas Two-Step."  You'd wait for an enemy to most adjacent to you, then attack, then move to the enemy's diagonal, and then repeat as many times as necessary.  Vaporum solves that sort of dance by giving its enemies lots of different types of attacks, and by almost always pitting you against multiple enemies.  For example, some enemies have ranged attacks, or area attacks, or damage over time attacks, and some can turn invisible or teleport or leave damaging acid on the ground.  Or they might have some combination of the above.  So the fights tend to be trickier, although usually you just need to figure out a new dance that works.

Unfortunately, while Fatbot Games did a nice job with the combat, they weren't as successful with the puzzles.  The puzzles are mostly straightforward, just requiring you to push buttons or throw bricks or push blocks in obvious ways.  As an example, in one puzzle you find a room filled with trap doors.  When you start the puzzle, a light shines over one of the trap doors, and you're given a few second to make your way over to it before all of the other trap doors open up, potentially dropping you into spikes of death.  Then to complete the puzzle, you just have to repeat the process a half dozen times.  This puzzle is sort of annoying because you have to be facing in the right direction to see the light, and even when you do spot it, it's sometimes difficult to figure out exactly where it's shining, which means you'll probably fail and die a lot before succeeding.  Or at least I did.

Another thing Vaporum has in common with Legend of Grimrock is that it includes a bunch of secrets for you to find.  Conveniently, the interface tells you how many secrets there are on the current level, and how many you've found, so you can always stay on the current level until you've located everything.  The secrets start out straightforward (where you're usually given a clue for where to look), but then eventually they rely on you finding small buttons on random walls (where the buttons blend in with the texture style), and unless you're way more patient than I am, you're probably not going to find them.  Even when I knew roughly where a button had to be, I often had trouble finding it, so for me Vaporum failed the East Egg Hunt Rule, where you want things to be hidden, but not so well hidden that nobody find them, and you end up discovering rotten eggs in your backyard two months later.  Fatbot Games was nice enough to send me a walkthrough for Vaporum along with the game, and I used it a lot to find secrets, but I never needed it for the puzzles.

When you defeat enemies and solve puzzles, you're often rewarded with equipment.  Characters can wear several items: helmets, gloves, body armor, boots, a main hand weapon, an off-hand weapon or shield, and at least two gadgets.  I only saw one item set in the game.  Otherwise, items are just "regular" or "magical" (with extra bonuses), and they pretty much only come in strict upgrades of your existing equipment.  That is, the equipment isn't very exciting, and you're not given a lot of options for what to wear.

Helpfully, the interface contains an automap feature, so you're not required to break out a pad of graph paper to make your own maps (unless you want to; there's an old-school mode for anyone feeling masochistic).  You're even allowed to annotate the maps -- at least theoretically.  Annotations weren't working in the version of the game I played, but I'm guessing they'll be fixed in time for the retail release.

Unhelpfully, your exo rig regenerates energy but not integrity, so you have to be extra careful when fighting lest you run out of repair kits before an important boss fight.  You might also have to do some saving and loading so you complete battles "well" rather than just getting through them.  And waiting for your energy to regenerate after battles gets tedious, as you might have to sit around for a couple of minutes with nothing to do.

Graphics and Sound

The graphics in Vaporum are functional but not great.  Weapons only have minimal animations -- for example, you only see the "swipe" of melee weapons, so they all look the same -- and you never see your character at all.  Environmental textures are repeated all over the place.  There aren't many enemies, and they re-use assets, but you can always at least tell what's coming, which is the important thing.  For example, acid-dealing enemies always glow green.

There isn't much in the way of music or voice acting in the game.  You mostly only hear the ambient noises of the level you're on -- the sound of your footsteps, the hum of a teleporter, the clang of a gate closing, and things like that.  As you search through containers, you sometimes find notes and audio recordings (which is how Vaporum tells its minimalistic story), and your character sometimes comments on things, which is where the voice acting comes in.  The voice actors are ok.  They're only required to read their lines clearly, and they do that well enough.  You never meet any NPCs or visit any shops or anything like that.

Conclusion

I liked Vaporum well enough, but I didn't love it.  The game owes a lot to Legend of Grimrock -- both in how it looks and how it plays -- but it feels like a more simplified, minimalistic version of that game, with significantly easier puzzles.  But since Legend of Grimrock 3 might never arrive, Vaporum fills a niche, and it's a perfectly reasonable way to spend 20 hours of your life.