Although its absolute heyday might have passed, steampunk continues to whir, rattle and grind its way through fantasy fiction and media. The steampunk aesthetic has been at the heart of more than a few video games as well, including the BioShock series and Dishonored and its sequel. Add to this list Vaporum, a first-person, grid-based dungeon crawler. The game has now arrived on consoles (including Switch) after more than a year as a PC exclusive.
More Ken Levine than Jules Verne, Vaporum takes place in a multi-level tower of interconnected, dimly lit corridors and while the game’s overall art style is crisp and detailed, there is a maddening sameness about the sprawling level design and the blocky maps that hang on throughout each area. While navigating the dozen or so maze-like levels is another puzzle on top of many other puzzles, I spent a lot of time glued to the map, trying to figure out where I was. On top of this, right stick movement sensitivity meant that I often turned past the view I intended. Although there are a fair numbers of modifiers, including the ability to turn off the one-block-at-a-time movement, the controls never felt truly in tune with the flow of the game. Not having played the game with mouse and keyboard, I can’t help but wonder if the controller is really the optimal input device.
Vaporum literally has as much or as little story as you want to experience, beginning with the timeworn “amnesiac trying to piece together his history” premise. Although there is some voice acting — of variable quality and effectiveness — much of the story is told through notes, journals audio logs and other environmental detritus. What’s there is well-written, though many players will of course skip nearly all of it. In the realm of audio, Vaporums sound design is uniformly good and it really helps to define the metallic, resonant spaces and mechanical enemies. There is so much potential to the game’s aesthetic that I couldn’t help but lament how constricted it was by the camera and grid-design choice.
Exploration, puzzle solving and combat lie at the heart of Vaporum. Combat might be the weakest element, simply due to the controls and movement and not the enemies themselves or the variety of weapons. Although they could be extremely challenging — most often due to their numbers or position on the grid — the enemies are a somewhat repetitive selection of clockwork creatures and iron clad, hulking figures that sometimes defy logic in their placement. The ability to stop time in order to strategize is a welcome mechanic, as is the ability to examine enemies at length in the codex. There is no character progression in Vaporum; rather, the player character dons an exo-suit at the beginning that stands in for a class, and the suit is upgraded and added to throughout. The weapon selection is interesting and large, but the inventory system is cumbersome and not quickly organized.
The many environmental puzzles run the gamut from the obvious to the deeply perplexing, but they are solvable with reflection and creativity. That said, many simply exist as gamey constructs or impediments to finding important items and don’t necessarily contribute to the logic of Vaporum’s world building. To be fair, the same could be said about any number of puzzle-centric games.
Fans of old-school, first-person dungeon crawlers will enjoy Vaporum for its homage to the older mechanics and restrictions that technical limits once placed on games. For the rest of us, Vaporum can feel like a cool concept and visual style straightjacketed by outmoded gameplay. Freed from the grid and with more standard camera and movement, Vaporum might seem more like a copycat game, but would be much more fun to play.