Pronouncing various game genres and subgenres “dead” is the stock and trade of certain sorts of gamer. “Point-and-click adventure games are dead!” cry these morbid folk, neglecting the ubiquitous hidden object games that took their place. “4X games! JRPGs! Dungeon crawlers! All dead!” You’d think nothing ever came out besides first-person shooters. That’s not true, naturally; at the very least, we know the dungeon-crawler is still around thanks to games like Legend of Grimrock, StarCrawlers and the recently-released Vaporum.
You awaken in front of a giant tower, one that you don’t recognize but that seems to recognize you. The doors open and you’re allowed in, discovering that the Arx Vaporum, as you come to know it, is a massive steam-powered labyrinth filled with horrors and wonders alike. It’s not long before you gear up with an exo-rig device that offers you a fighting chance against the dangers of the tower, but it won’t be enough; you’ll need to find weapons, armor and devices to arm yourself along with using your wits to solve the many puzzles you’ll come across.
Vaporum is a pretty clear love letter to The Legend of Grimrock and similar first-person dungeon crawler titles. The fact that I’m willing to call something “a love letter,” thus offending the Gods of Writing with my use of the single worst cliché in the book, should tell you something. This could easily have been a third Legend of Grimrock game, packed as it is with similar gameplay. You’ll run around picking up items, battling monsters and solving puzzles, steadily making your way up the tower as you go.
If you’ve played pretty much any of these games before, in fact, you’ll know what to expect here. Combat is a simple affair; smack enemies with weapons, shoot them with guns or use “devices” that serve as a magic analogue to fry them. Novices will likely try to stand and fight fair, but vets of the genre know that the only way to survive against the impossible odds Vaporum presents you with is to stay on the move so you’re never there when an enemy strikes. Victory yields Fumium, essentially experience points, and gaining levels allows you to enhance your exo-rig’s capabilities via a customizable skill tree. Characters can be specialized in melee, ranged, device usage or a combination per the player’s liking, which is a nice touch, though this being a dungeon crawler with no shopping you’ll need to be ready for not necessarily having your preferred weapons available when you need them.
Combat is less of a focus than exploration and puzzle-solving, however. Vaporum makes this side of things a joy; coming across audio logs and learning more about the Arx Vaporum is fascinating and will help push players to continue moving forward. Puzzles, meanwhile, range from simple to mind-bending; even keeping track of where you are in the tower can be difficult at first, though the game mercifully offers an auto-map. As with Grimrock, my favorite aspect of the game might be the secrets strewn throughout each level; astute players can earn extra gear by paying attention to their surroundings and investigating suspicious areas. It’s a great touch and I found myself scouring each level multiple times just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything.
Vaproum’s aesthetics serve the game well, really driving the unique setting home; a more traditional take on a dungeon might not be so impressive, but Vaporum promises steampunk and that’s exactly what you get. Expect plenty of valves, cogs and that sort of thing. There’s a fair amount of voice acting as well which ranges in quality from “pretty good” to “ugh” – our amnesiac hero in particular kind of runs the gamut with his gritty mutterings, though I never came to dislike him. One final note: prospective players will want to make sure they’ve got some patience for this sort of game, as Vaporum can be fairly difficult and by its very nature conservation of supplies is key. Saving often is a must, and at times it may be prudent to replay fights to ensure you use as little of your limited inventory; System Shock fans might remember how this works.
If you’re willing to stick with the game’s sometimes-grueling difficulty, though, Vaporum is a fantastic dungeon-crawler with a unique and intriguing premise. Stepping away from the tried-and-true fantasy setting is a solid move for this sort of game and it serves Vaporum well. Genre fans shouldn’t miss this one.