Just glue some gears on it and call it steampunk, that’s the trendy fashion nowadays.
At least it is if Sir Reginald Pikedevant is to be believed. Vaporum, however, bucks this trend. This dungeon crawler could easily have been the gaming equivalent of covering a Nerf gun in gold paint, but it instead earns its steampunk credentials. There are definite parallels between the use of magic spells and the use of Vaporum’s energy-fuelled gadgets but there are also plenty of neat touches such as the way your abilities are tied to your armour and not your actual character.
Your amnesiac protagonist finds himself at the base of a vast tower, slap bang in the middle of the ocean. Not unlike Bioshock, in fact; though while Bioshock plunges you into the depths, Vaporum has you ascending the mysterious edifice in search of answers. The plot is eked out though notes and recordings left by the tower’s previous inhabitants, though the game largely avoids the trope of having characters catalogue their actual dying words.
And, for a while, Vaporum will hold your attention. You’ll roam the grid-based levels, fending off enemies with melee weapons, energy attacks or, depending upon your chosen specialisation, a combination of both. The corridors are appropriately gloomy, bedecked with steam valves, pipes and other assorted steampunk trappings; the gloom slowly lifting as you make your way up through the tower. You’ll gawp at the strange mechanical (and sometimes organic) enemies that bar your way; acid-spewing mechanical spiders, hovering steam-powered sentry bots and many other menaces.
The snag is that while there’s no faulting Vaporum’s steampunk aesthetic, strip that away and you’re left with a rather middling game. Vaporum’s combat, typically the beating heart of a dungeon crawler, lacks complexity. You can attack with each hand but you only have one single attack – there’s no slash, lunge or any real variety there. This is the norm for games where you manage a party, but since you’re on your own in Vaporum, you don’t have the luxury of that distraction. Enemies also attack individually and while it’s possible to get cornered, for the most part you’re just hacking away at one foe until the other obligingly steps up.
Dodging is theoretically possible, but the controls are so unwieldy it’s rarely practical, even if you activate the conventional movement option. As visually appealing as your enemies are in Vaporum, that appeal soon wears off when you’ve spent the last however many minutes tapping away at the same button, reloading when the virtual dice rolls didn’t go your way. When it comes to using gadgets, different attacks, electrical, chemical and so forth affect them in different ways, but this consideration is hobbled by the fact that the game doesn’t seem to take into account whether enemies are walking or flying. Cover a floor with acid or electricity and airborne enemies will still be damaged.
Exploration and puzzle-solving feature heavily in most dungeon crawlers and, while you’ll spend a great deal of time roaming Vaporum’s corridors, the puzzles you solve to make progress are disappointingly low-rent. Former GameSpew writer Olivia noted that Vaporum’s puzzles present accessibility issues – but aside from that, they’re just not very interesting. Complex puzzles are far and few between, and for the most part you’re activating a button and racing to a door before it closes. On a joypad, “solving” these involves facing a wall (since even turning will cost you too much time) and side-stepping or moving in the appropriate direction.
Conquering these challenges never felt like much of an achievement. Customising your hi-tech suit is more rewarding than solving any puzzle; you can spend an age poring over its many configurations, though putting it into action isn’t nearly as much fun as tweaking each element.
If you’re a steampunk aficionado then Vaporum will doubtless hold some appeal for you; it’s smartly presented and tells a tantalisingly haunting tale of man’s folly. But for those who aren’t as taken with steam power, Vaporum is a rather average dungeon crawler.