Vaporum Review: A Faithful Tribute That Struggles to Gain Steam

The console port of Vaporum is an impressively authentic homage to a bygone era, but its pursuit of fidelity is a detriment to the overall experience.

Vaporum Review

The console port of Vaporum is an impressively authentic homage to a bygone era, but its pursuit of fidelity is a detriment to the overall experience.

Fatbot Games' Vaporum is a first-person grid-based dungeon crawler that hearkens back to the golden days of the bygone genre while also enjoying modern visuals and a steampunk aesthetic. Vaporum, Fatbot's first effort, was originally released as a PC exclusive in 2017, and the game has finally found its way to the console market with impending releases on PS4, Xbox One, and Switch. A veritably faithful homage to popular dungeon crawlers like Eye of the Beholder and, much more recently, Legend of GrimrockVaporum is sure to please devoted followers of the niche genre. However, Vaporum pursues its genre fidelity to a fault, heaping antiquated gameplay mechanics atop a number of other issues that would otherwise be more forgivable on their own.

First among Vaporum's smaller deficiencies are its story and setting. Impressively, Vaporum goes to considerable lengths to furnish a mysterious plot line to drive along the action and puzzle-solving. Set in a foreboding tower, the Arx Vaporum, that juts out of an anomalous body of water, the player takes control of an amnesiac man braving the tower's many enemy-filled and trap-laden floors, discovering his identity, the dark purpose of the Arx Vaporum, and the fate of its residents and employees as he climbs. If that prompts vague memories of exploring the underwater ruins of BioShock's Rapture, that's because Vaporum wears its visual influence by the dystopian FPS on its sleeve, with its abandoned industrial environments, steel doors covered in art deco designs, and most imposing foes' designs being heavily informed by early diving gear.

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The similarities to BioShock end there, though. For all its clear and genuine effort, Vaporum's story falls flat; after a slow, uneventful rising action and an uninspired plot twist, Vaporum ends on a wholly unsatisfying and undeserved cliffhanger. A wealth of notes are strewn about the Arx Vaporum, and they make an earnest attempt to paint a vibrant image of the tower's vanished inhabitants, but the writing mostly varies in quality between dull and eye-roll-inducing cliché. While these notes get the job done on the world-building front, they fail to make the paper-thin mystery of the game's setting any more compelling. Unfortunately, the game's voiced protagonist and audio logs (called phonodiaries) don't do much to pick up the slack. The voice cast clearly has talent that shines through on occasion, but the majority of the protagonist's lines are delivered so flatly that it calls the quality (or perhaps even the existence) of their direction into question. Above all, Vaporum's writing would greatly benefit from further leaning into its BioShock inspiration by relenting in its curt exposition and allowing the world to speak for itself instead.

However, in fairness, Vaporum's gameplay is what most will come for, but its unlikely that it will convince all of them to stay. As touched upon previously, Vaporum is a throwback first-person dungeon crawler through and through, and much of what it has to offer mechanically feels glaringly dated. Featuring real-time combat (made more approachable for genre newcomers through the use of an optional Stop Time Mode, allowing players to freeze the game while weighing their next move), Vaporum's movement system only lets players face one of four directions and forces them to navigate Arx Vaporum on a grid - the unitiated can refer to Mortal Kombat's Krypts for a modern example of how this style of movement looks. This works fine on PC while using a keyboard and mouse, but it often feels clunky and imprecise on a gamepad (like much of Vaporum) due to the inherent looseness of analog sticks. There is an awkwardly bound and essentially useless free-look camera, but anyone who has played an FPS in the last two decades will likely struggle to come to grips with Vaporum's gameplay at first.

Beyond that genre-specific hurdle, there are some facets of Vaporum's dedication to fidelity that don't detract from what it tries to accomplish. Arx Vaporum's increasingly labyrinthine floors are fairly rewarding to explore, with plenty of secret areas tucked away to continually tease the player with the prospects unique armor and weapons. Exploration is greatly facilitated by the game's auto-map, which automatically fills itself out with floors' layouts as the player navigates them and leaves it up to the player whether or not to mark key items and areas of interest, much in the way yesteryear's dungeon crawlers spurred players to rely on pen and paper. (As a fun aside, the auto-map can be disabled to better simulate that authentic experience.) Another genre mainstay that Vaporum incorporates is puzzle-solving, which ranges in size and complexity from simple sliding block puzzles to floor-spanning assessments. Ultimately, though, these puzzles are altogether forgettable, but they do serve to break up the flow of gameplay and make the game's samey floors feel slightly more unique.

Of course, the meat of the game is to be found in its progression and combat, and, like most aspects of the game, they're likely to satisfy dungeon crawler devotees but will be more hit-and-miss for the majority of players. Notably, Vaporum lacks a party system, unlike the genre-defining titles it emulates. That's not a problem by any means - in fact, it helps to make the bleak corridors of Arx Vaporum feel even more isolating. In addition to a lack of classes (with the game's closest analog to traditional specialization being a minor choice between four exo-suits), there's only one set of small skill trees to focus on as players level up. Nevertheless, it quickly becomes clear that Integrity, which determines the hit-points of your exo-suit, is the most consequential investment for most builds, with late-game fights devolving into contests decided by the amount of damage the player can take.

As far as combat goes, it's standard grid-based dungeon crawler fare, complete with melee, ranged, and pseudo-magic abilities that come in the form of Gadgets. The act of fighting enemies, some of which are very well-designed, is reasonably serviceable in and of itself, but the game suffers from a distinct lack of enemy variety, morphing Vaporum into an increasingly tiresome slog by the game's end. While some enemies that employ ranged attacks encourage the player to tactically position themselves and utilize more of their arsenal, most fights amount to the player and their foe(s) standing still and spamming the same attack at one another until someone runs out of hit-points. Similarly, nearly all late-game encounters resort to overwhelming the player rather than challenging them, throwing together seemingly random smatterings of higher level enemies in ways that don't feel like sufficient tests of combat mastery. Further hampered by the total lack of on-screen weapon presence and weapon-specific attack animations, making the already less impactful RNG combat feel even less so, Vaporum sacrifices engaging gameplay in the name of genre purity while it inexplicably takes liberties in other areas.

Vaporum Screenshot Puzzle

For all its faults, Vaporum is a labor of love that does its best to pay homage to a forgotten era, and it largely succeeds in capturing an authentic dungeon crawler experience. However, it's for that very reason that Vaporum will likely ward off a lot of players who are less familiar with the genre, as its flagrantly imperfect marriage of archaic gameplay to modern game design leaves much to be desired. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of passion, thought, and time that Fatbot Games has injected into the game is abundantly clear, so the ultimately less-than-stellar execution is definitely not the product of indifference. That doesn't change the fact that most console gamers will find Vaporum to be a clunky and largely inaccessible time machine, but those willing to stick it out are likely to find enjoyable moments in the time they spend shooting and bashing their way through the mechanical mazes of the Arx Vaporum.

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Vaporum will be available on PS4, Xbox One, and Switch on April 10 and is currently available on for PC. Screen Rant was provided a Xbox One code for review.

Our Rating:

2.5 out of 5 (Fairly Good)
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