Vaporum: Lockdown – Of steamworks and puzzles – Review

Gare – Wednesday, September 30, 2020 11:35 AM
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I have a confession to make: I’m not exactly what you’d call a dungeon crawler veteran. I have vague memories of games like Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, forged in the ancient fires of the early 90s, and I’m certainly aware of modern classics like Legend of Grimrock – but other than some passing familiarity with the genre, I’ve never really dipped my toe in the seemingly bottomless lake of the “first-person grid-based dungeon crawler”. And then… Vaporum: Lockdown happened. Needless to say, I think I’m starting to see what people enjoy about these types of games.

The great escape

Vaporum: Lockdown comes as a standalone prequel to Vaporum (which, if you’ve read the previous paragraph, you’ll know that I haven’t played), and is a steampunk fantasy dungeon crawler with an absolutely gorgeous, and at times genuinely creepy, visual aesthetic. You follow the adventures of Ellie Teller, a scientist just trying to make it out alive from a mechanical tower called Arx Vaporum where all hell seems to have broken loose, with robots, mutated roaches and steampunk zombies attacking everything in sight. I’ll be honest, though – from a storyline perspective, Vaporum: Lockdown didn’t particularly capture my imagination, nor was I constantly at the edge of my seat trying to find out what would happen next, as the vast majority of Ellie’s quest consists of her visiting multiple levels of the tower trying to repair things that need to be repaired before she can escape in her submarine. It’s a glorified shopping list is what it is, except you’re running around looking for a bunch of different gizmos and thingamajigs instead of eggs and milk. Still, let’s be real here for a second. We’re primarily here to beat up robots and solve puzzles. The occasional journal entry and audio recording, detailing the circumstances of what went wrong inside the tower (why do video game villains always feel the need to record their evil plans on tape, anyway?), mostly serve as additional fluff – a side dish to lend some extra context to all the relentless robot abuse and puzzle-solving you will inevitably partake in. But really, the true highlights of Vaporum: Lockdown are its mind-bending puzzles and unique, “real time with time stop” battle system.

Rage against the machine

As mentioned above, Vaporum: Lockdown is a grid-based dungeon crawler played from a first-person perspective. That means each level is divided into squares, and instead of being able to move freely, you sort of just slide across the map, going from one square to the next – almost like a chess piece. In combat, you have several options: launch a melee attack, fire a ranged weapon, or use a gadget. Gadgets are this game’s version of magic spells, allowing you to deal continuous elemental damage over time, summon minions, apply useful buffs/debuffs and do a variety of other cool things that further widen your tactical options in battle. You can choose to specialize in any one of these disciplines by spending skill points and become a spell-hurling steampunk wizard, a beefy tank with mace and shield in hand, or even a dual-wielding DPS monster that dishes out damage at breakneck speed; there’s a decent bit of character customization available, so if you’re the type that enjoys trying out multiple builds across multiple playthroughs, well… the world is your steam-fueled oyster.

By default, battles play out in real time: when you’re in range of an enemy, you launch your attack and hope it doesn’t miss. Your foe will, of course, retaliate, but this is where the best part of Lockdown’s combat comes into play – evasion. You don’t actually have to stand in place and soak up damage like a chump, and can (or rather, should) side-step to an adjacent square to evade your enemy’s strikes, wait for your weapon/gadget to finish its cooldown, then turn around and launch another attack. If you enjoy cheesing the living hell out of your opponents, Vaporum: Lockdown is the ultimate dungeon crawling power fantasy – well, as long as you’re in a 1v1 situation, your foe doesn’t have any extra tricks up its sleeve, and the terrain is well-suited for constant dodging and sidestepping. Which, mind you, isn’t always the case. In fact, it’s usually not the case. And that brings me to my next point.

Stop! Hammer time!

Once the game starts throwing groups of different types of foes at you (coupled with maps that make it harder for you to freely move around) is when things get genuinely interesting. With multiple enemies trying to poke you to death in the same room, the usual “I’ll just circle around him forever” strategy won’t fly anymore, and there’s always the danger of getting sandwiched by foes and having no room to dodge. Each enemy you face has its own strengths and weaknesses and requires a slightly different strategy to topple: you’ll come across mutated bugs that spit fire and acid (dealing damage over time while also contaminating the squares they touch), soldiers that use guns to snipe you from afar, floating drones equipped with precise, long-reaching lasers that can be an absolute pain to avoid, and even massive, hulking giants capable of unleashing deadly area-of-effect attacks, just to name a few. This is where the game’s Stop Time mechanic really comes in handy, and where the combat system, I feel, really shines. With this mode activated, time only flows when you hold down a button (or perform an action), allowing you to carefully assess your situation between every single move. Combat suddenly becomes a uniquely fun blend of tabletop RPGs and chess as you weigh your options, switch weapons and gadgets mid-battle, and plan out which squares are safe to step on at any given time; as a result, instead of battles becoming an overly chaotic, reflex-based mess, the Stop Time mode allows you to take control and utilize your character’s potential to its full. One thing I find somewhat lamentable about the game, however, is its lack of memorable boss encounters – although the campaign does have you fight two bosses in a row at the very end of the storyline, one of which requires a bit of extra trickery to beat, at the end of the day, they’re nothing more than recycled and supersized versions of foes you’ve already fought before.

Mental gymnastics

And now we come to the puzzles. Oh boy, the puzzles. While Vaporum: Lockdown’s combat encounters do take up a sizeable chunk of the campaign, it’s the puzzles that ultimately came to define my experience with the game. There’s a great variety of intriguing brain teasers scattered across each and every level of the tower, and no two of them are exactly the same. It’s really quite amazing just how many different types of puzzles they’ve managed to pack into this thing without them feeling repetitive, and although they do sometimes utilize similar elements, such as pushing crates, flipping levers or activating wall-mounted switches, they’re used so creatively that you’ll never find yourself thinking “oh, this again”. If anything, every time I entered a new puzzle area, I would more often than not go “oh man, how do I solve this” – indeed, the solutions are not always immediately apparent, and a number of puzzles may feel outright confusing at times, but there’s a method to their madness, and it’s usually a better idea to slow down and take some time to unravel their mechanics. I’ll readily admit that I did get stuck a couple of times, and certain puzzles did make me audibly groan in exasperation, to say nothing of the numerous times I heard myself go “this makes my brain hurt something fierce”, but it was all the more cathartic when I finally managed to figure out exactly what I had to do. What’s more, certain puzzles even go the extra mile by smuggling in optional elements and secrets that can be uncovered for additional rewards.

Final thoughts

So, how would I rate Vaporum: Lockdown as a person who’s 1) never played the original game and 2) is a bit of a dungeon crawler newbie? Well, the fact that even a newbie like me could have an absolute blast with this game (some puzzle-related frustrations aside) should stand testament to its quality. It’s gorgeous aesthetically, with every room and corridor oozing an authentically steampunk-ish vibe. Its combat mechanics are fluid and strategic without being bogged down by needlessly complex mechanics, and the Stop Time mode offers the perfect crutch for people who’d rather take things slow. And finally, its puzzles are varied and imaginative, never failing to bring something new to the table just when you think you’d seen everything. All in all, a rewarding and absolutely worthwhile dungeon crawling/puzzle-solving experience for newcomers and genre enthusiasts alike.

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