How is it that Bioshock doesn’t get ripped off mercilessly?
System Shock is one thing, but Bioshock has had the privilege of aging more gracefully, along with having a visual aesthetic and world that’s ripe for inspiration and tribute, and not just the infamous twist. Maybe it’s the possibility of it looking too obvious if you’re inspired by it, but nevertheless, here’s Vaporum trying to get away with it.
This is a grid-based, first-person dungeon crawler, and the debut title from Slovakian developers Fatbot Games, which saw a warm reception upon the release of its PC version in 2017. Since then, Fatbot have been tending to Vaporum further and further, until finally deciding to bring it to consoles, with the niche-providing Merge Games handling the publishing. What are Merge Games responsible for? One word: HoPiKo.
Now you know we’re in for a fun time.
You play as a guy. Who is this guy? He’s The Guy! A Guy whose name is uttered somewhere, but where is a mystery; Maybe under the sea. Anyway, you find yourself stranded in the middle of the ocean, with no landmarks to assist you, bar the giant industrial monolith sitting in front of you. With no other options, you begin to roam inside, with it not being long before you realize that the rain and salt-flavoured air would’ve been a better option.
One thing I will give Fatbot and Vaporum praise for right off the bat is being unapolagetic about its influences. Forget the multitudes of dungeon crawlers that it nips pieces from– This intro is just one Andrew Ryan short of taking the maintanence entrance to Rapture. Honestly though, given that this is the first true-blue Bioshock clone I’ve ever played, I’m inclined to forgive it, and it also helps that the game is quite fun.
So it’s a first-person dungeon crawler, and all of it plays out in realtime. Despite the real-time implementation, you still walk in a stilted manner through a grid-based map. The intro level does well to ease you in with the mood and pacing that Vaporum is trying to set up, and it’s not long before you get your “Rig”, an exo-skeletal contraption your character wears to provide protection against whatever may come your way.
After you slip into the Rig, you’ll notice its benefits. Not only can it possibly provide protection from having your eyes popped out from the immense pressure you’re under, but it also offers a host of gadgets. Boosting your weaponry and the power of it, shocking an area with electricity or poison, adding more defense to the rig– it’s heavily customizable, and you’ll need to customize it in order to survive the hazards placed forth.
So you begin your first fight, and combat is… okay? It’s still in real time, which tends to lull you into a false sense of security, as attempting to remain a tactical fleet-footed Spli– I mean, warrior, is difficult to do within a grid. That’s for a while at least, until the notion that you walk in 1×1 increments sticks with you, and it’s actually fine to play.
This is thanks to some interesting enemy variety that forces you to switch on a dime with how you approach enemies, with there not being a lot of space for you to use the same strategy twice. Trying to do the Tango with the bulkier guys was a fascinating thing to watch unravel, as you roll around side-stepping every attack, waiting for your weapon to recharge.
Speaking of, the weapon variety is impressive, but a lot of it falls on deaf ears. You’ve got the usual sharp weapons and blunt weapons, but there’s also ranged weaponry, which is where a lot of the strategy flies out of the window. Granted, a lot of the pistols and rifles have a range of 3 or 4 tiles, a lot of the arenas are about 3-4 tiles in size, so you can easily kite any of the enemies with a quick shot and a back step.
Going on from the weaponry, there is also a surprising amount of different stats here, and even though it usually falls into “Incremental bonuses towards stats that you won’t ever recognize” territory, the differences are noticeable. More health or less health, bonuses towards certain items or overall stats, it’s the usual schtick, but implemented in a way that you can realize fully and optimize.
There’s also some unbelievably brutal puzzle elements, that are only brutal due to the lack of an autosave. Am I asking for an autosave feature? No. Am I asking for respect whilst trying to understand these constantly-revolving puzzle mechanics and timed switches without clear recognition of how long the switch will stay on? Yes.
You will never feel more angry and annoyed with both yourself and the game than when you accidentally screw up on a puzzle that isn’t telegraphed as well as you thought, and your last save was at the beginning of a level. “The Library” is an absolute bastard for this type of mistake being made, especially when constant new puzzle mechanics arrive without any fanfare or description.
It’s the pushing block puzzles that begin to break your immersion slightly. You can push and pull giant unbreakable crates around the rooms, should they be blocking you, but realistically, what’s stopping me from just sliding in-between the holes in the crates? Are the rigs really that unwieldy? I don’t know about that if I can dance like Bruce Lee in battle.
That being said, I can appreciate some of the design, even if it’s mostly obtuse. It’s varied, it’s an actual challenge, and when you don’t forget to quick-save with every step and finish a puzzle, it’s an immensely satisfying process. I won’t give it full praise due to the fact that autosave or not, being punished for their own lack of clairvoyance is absurd.
Finally, I believe the story and its world could have been more fleshed out. It takes a while to truly dig into the mystery of this underwater industry, and the answer isn’t as rewarding as you’d think. This is partly due to some unfortunately slow pacing, as mentioned above, but it feels like Fatbot are too scared to go all out with inspirations or their own spins.
There’s one level early in the game that has a really good vibe. You’re still in these dark damp tunnels, but there’s something different about these halls. The sound design is superb as you hear the defeaning roar of deep water. Footsteps that aren’t yours begin to play out in different parts of the room. Your character is frightened, but his voice actor doesn’t sound it.
This is another problem the game has: The voice acting is truly amateur. Props to Fatbot and their resources for trying, but a lot of them have this fake enthusiasm that’s easy to spot, as opposed to someone who sounds like they’re stuck within the time period. Not everyone in the 50s had this “Golly Gee Whiz, Cal!” attitude, and when it’s not that, the characters sound like they’re about to fall asleep within the audio logs.
It’s frustrating as well, because the writing for most of the logs and transcripts is fairly solid. Whatever was discovered and obtained within these underwater mines was enough for some people to drop everything in their previous lives for. It gets to the point where a woman who has just conceived a child only wants one thing: To return to the research that her child prevented her from exploring. It’s well-written, but in the hands of most of these voice actors, it’s never conveyed as well-written.
With all things said and done however, the experience of Vaporum is an enticing one. The delve into this labyrinth of confusion and fear is one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and as a tribute to all things dungeon crawl-y and Bioshock-y, it’s a worthy tribute that can be appreciated. It’s not the most refined game on the market, but it’s enough to make any customer satisfied.
In the end, despite a story that fails to reach the promise it sets up, and puzzle design that goes against the teaching of the player in a fair manner, Vaporum is still a fun time. It’s a cute homage to the dungeon crawlers of old, and despite the Bioshock comparisons going a bit too far in terms of enemy design and aesthetically, it’s not enough to break the ice. It’s a short experience, prolonged only by the lack of an Autosave, but it’s still a neat journey.
This review of Vaporum was based on the Xbox One review of the game. A code was provided for review purposes.
It's not the biggest rip-off in the world, and Vaporum's neat little spins on dungeon crawling are respectable, with the combat being tactical and in-depth, and the story not being as rewarding as you'd think.
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