Vaporum (2017) Backlog Review

Do you grid-dance?

I love Vaporum and many of the classic games that inspired it, but it’s a difficult sell to newcomers. Clunky, archaic movement limitations and artificial grid-like environments – elements you might criticise in any other modern game – are core gameplay features and, if you buy into the nostalgic aspect, all part of the charm

Vaporum is a retro-inspired but infinitely more accessible modern “blobber” – think first-person dungeon-crawler, usually party-based, and with RPG elements. You trudge around labyrinthine grid-based levels, searching for keys, solving puzzles, hunting for secret areas, avoiding hazards, and defeating enemies to progress between floors. It’s a wonderfully contrived game world that makes little sense unless the primary purpose of the facility was to frustrate and/or kill its researchers.

Events take place entirely within a massive steampunk tower, in the midst of a raging and stormy sea, though figuring out who the protagonist is forms part of the early mystery. The ominous tower beckons them in and although they know they have some connection to it, everything else is a blur.

As you explore, a combination of written notes and scratchy audio logs spur on their memory, leading to revelatory monologues that slowly reveal the truth about their past and the present research into a mysterious substance known as “Fumium”. It’s a dated but effective approach that works in a game not particularly suited to conventional cinematics – though I wish there was a little more world-building to flesh out events beyond the tower.

Although many games in this sub-genre – from 1985’s The Bard’s Tale to 2017’s StarCrawlers – shift into turn-based combat when you encounter a foe, Vaporum uses the real-time approach first pioneered by 1987’s Dungeon Master and almost perfected by 2012’s Legend of Grimrock. Unlike many of its predecessors – and one of the reasons it received multiple console ports – is that is Vaporum is not “party-based” and doesn’t rely extensively on an emulated mouse cursor in combat.

You control a lumbering exoskeleton rig – a sensation not dissimilar to Delta in BioShock 2 – with four starting classes to pick from. These range from pure offence to pure defence, with a few unique perks and 10 gear slots that can be configured without restrictions. There are two offensive slots that can either handle one-handed maces, blades, or pistols combined with a shield, or a single but powerful two-handed weapon. You unlock up to four “gadget” slots that provide elemental damage or support abilities akin to spells, and there are four armour slots to mix and match attribute-boosting gear.

Vaporum Unique Weapons

Fumium gained from destroyed enemies goes towards increasing your rig level, unlocking circuits to invest in a dozen linear skill trees that cover weapon types, energy generation for gadgets, elemental damage and resistance, and general survivability. Each point invested provides a useful but incremental upgrade, while the third level provides a minor perk, and the fifth a choice between two major perks.

On the whole, it’s a versatile and adaptable system that replaces multiple less-specialised party members. It also feels reasonably balanced given you can only max out 3 or 4 skill trees in a single playthrough. You could prioritise damage output to quickly remove threats; turn yourself into a physical and elementally resistant tank that reflects back a huge portion of damage; or pick a middle ground.

Vaporum Handgun Upgrade Path

Whatever your choice, exploration, puzzling, and indeed the combat all hinge on understanding and navigating the grid-like environment, rather than simply increasing your level and gear quality – a design many seem to ignore when you consider the number of videos with players retreating into a corner to just trade blows with enemies.

Vaporum can look and sound great despite its relative simplicity. The throbbing, clanking, and hissing industrial-steampunk setting is a perfect match for the artificial grid-based world. That said, Vaporum is at its most boring when you’re plodding down claustrophobic corridors or backtracking to a locked door, moving past hundreds of near-identically-textured walls and floors.

You move block by block in any direction relative to your view, which you can swing 90 degrees at a time. Free-look is great to scan for nefariously-hidden switches and objects, and you’ll engage in some light inventory management and menu-ing to use key items.

Thankfully, what it lacks in fluidity, it makes up for with purpose.

When you’re forced to move quickly to hit switches, dodge floor traps, or engage in combat with multiple foes, you’ll come to appreciate the convoluted but engaging movement system that forces you to be actively aware of your position in grid space.

There are times you need to dash between multiple switches by picking the most effective route. Other times you’ll be dashing between safe spots to avoid fireballs or pit traps. Far too much time is spent shifting around large boxes around to open a path. No matter what you’re doing,

When it comes to secret hunting, the predictable and repetitive grid-like nature of the environment is both a blessing and a curse. A quick look at the map often reveals blank spaces that hide a secret room but opening them can mean hunting for the tiniest differences in a common texture. It’s worth the effort though, as powerful gear, consumables that permanently increase your basic attributes, rare upgrade circuits, and even revealing documents are common rewards.

Vaporum Haunted Map

Battling on a grid can feel a bit limited at first and, so long as you’re up against a single enemy and have a 2-by-2 grid space, it’s possible to simply shuffle around them and get in free hits as they transition or reorient. Vaporum attempts to spice things up by giving some enemies projectile attacks, quick strafes, area-of-effect attacks, knock-back attacks, and side-swipes, but one-on-one battles are always survivable if you’re patient.

In contrast, group battles – especially those with hazards thrown in – will quickly tax your powers of observation, planning, adaptability, and reflexes. Vaporum is perhaps too fond of locking you in rooms, resulting in combat that feels like an awkward dance as you avoid being boxed in, try not to strafe into a hazard or AoE attack, dodge crisscrossing projectiles (or lead enemies into them), clear space to trigger a repair kit, and line up priority targets.

It’s often chaotic and unpredictable but if you keep a clear head and have a decent sense of spatial awareness, it can be a lot of fun and you’ll often come out on top.

So six years on from launch, and 36 years since Dungeon Master introduced real-time combat to the formula, Vaporum is an interesting mix of old designs with more modern sensibilities. The PC version feels most intuitive to play but the console ports are great, irrespective of which platform/s you own.

I strongly recommend it for dungeon-crawler and RPG fans, though I’d hazard a guess the audience will always be niche. That said, if you can wrap your brain around the grid-based structure, Vaporum provides a weirdly compelling mix of methodical exploration and secret hunting, plenty of mentally taxing spatial puzzles, and high-intensity combat that requires you simultaneously plan and react.

Screenshots were captured on the Nintendo Switch. Vaporum is also available on PC, Xbox One/Xbox Series, PS4/PS5.

Vaporum (2017) Backlog Review

Vaporum (2017) Backlog Review
8 10 0 1
Total Score

The Good

  • An intriguing steam-punk setting and compelling mystery
  • Rewarding exploration, challenging spatial puzzles, and secret hunting
  • A simple but flexible upgrade and gear system
  • Combat that’ll test your ability to observe, plan, and react simultaneously

The Bad

  • Slow and uneventful backtracking
  • Too many box-pushing puzzles
  • A few secrets I can’t believe anyone could find without a guide
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