True dungeon crawlers are a fascinating genre. Born initially out of necessity to emulate how classic Dungeons and Dragons campaigns were made, and compounded by limitations of computers at the time, the dungeon crawler is a pretty archaic vessel to deliver stories nowadays, especially with the availability of better engines, more robust processors and infinitely stronger graphics cards. Some time ago, I had a chance to try Moero Chronicles, and I commented that, despite the crazy lewd undertones, it was satisfying to delve into that sort of map system, and the ideas were solid. Thankfully, I now have a more fitting dungeon crawler under my belt, and it’s the best one since Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. Welcome to the world of Vaporum.
Vaporum, which is the first title launched by Fatbot Games, is an incredibly ambitious tale of a man who awakens in an underground lair, without a clue as to how he got there, and looking for answers and escape. Shortly after awakening, he finds a series of “exo-rigs,” mechanical suits that he dons in order to protect himself from the environment and also from hostile robots. The rigs each have their own strong points (one for offense, one for defense and one for skills/magic) and feel strangely familiar to him, though he cannot discern why. It soon becomes clear that the exo-rig will be needed to find answers as to how this laboratory became abandoned, why it’s full of menacing, half-robotic organisms, and what the dark secret is behind the work that was happening here.
Vaporum plays out in a huge grid, much like classic dungeon crawlers, but with the added bonus of most things being real time. This means that, unlike a lot of other dungeon crawlers, you don’t have the luxury to carefully plan out your next attack and decide if you can drink a potion this round or next. The enemies will attack you relentlessly, as fast as their attacks can recharge, and they will absolutely surround you if given the opportunity. The only way to survive is to be aware, alert and be fast on your fingers. You can only have one weapon equipped at a time, so be sure to know if you have enough ammunition before connecting yourself to a rifle that can run out of shots in the middle of hellfire. Thankfully, the realtime also means opportunities to move and stay quick on your feet. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get off some shots, retreat, swap to a more appropriate weapon (like a crowbar!) and beat the approaching monster till it explodes.
Just when you get comfortable dealing with the seemingly predictable movements of the robots, that’s when Vaporum lets you know that you are far from alone in these dark and creepy catacombs. The humanoid enemies are far worse, and this is where Vaporum can really take on a horror element. Paying attention to the soundscape of the game can prevent you from being pincered into a tight spot, and the humanoids seem more cunning as well as more dangerous and powerful. Not to mention the advent of these hulking monsters means the game takes on a brand new dimension of imposing. This isn’t just a curiosity expedition anymore: now it’s a fight for survivial.
Also, when there’s not enemies on the screen (or lurking just out of sight), you do have opportunities to stop and breathe, which gives you a chance to look around and admire everything that Vaporum has to offer in terms of atmosphere and design. I don’t normally gush about the graphics of a game this early in a review, but Vaporum is GORGEOUS. As the Steam page lets you know (and as these screenshots show), the steampunk influence is strong, and Vaporum brings it back to some truly Bioshock 1 inspiration. The random chinks of light only help to accentuate the shadows and the foreboding of the entire game, and it seriously feels like Vaporum could go toe-to-toe with most major releases that come out at this time. The robots in particular feel like a lot of thought went into how to make it clear they had Victorian inspiration without being so lazy as to put a top hat on them or a giant steam vent. One of the first hybrid monsters you encounter, a fleshy thing with a meta carapace, actually repulsed me, and it only gets better from there. Vaporum hasn’t wasted their time in crafting out the game that they want to play.
The way the exo-rig handles leveling up is also interesting. Rather than give your character experience points, you gradually get more energy that charges up the rig, allowing it to have a greater energy pool (essential for the variety of thurmalogical machine skills you find), and also allow you to “level up” your skill set, which plays more into the classic roleplaying element. I dumped all of my points into blunt weapons because, at the end of the day, I’m always a troll or an ogre in pen and paper games, and it felt good to know that I was in this amazing suit of robotic armor, in a world of technological wonderment, and I’m just beating shit with whatever I can find that looks like a club. There are also items that you can find hidden throughout that infuse your rig with extra energy, a perk that I hadn’t considered by not making the EXP an intangible item that players would receive. There was a lot of thought put into how to make this game both pure to the concept but loyal to the roots.
Vaporum is, frankly, massive. Installing in at over 10 GB, I initially thought a majority of the size was going into the assets, but the maps and the lore of the game itself is simply sprawling. Just within my very first area of the dungeon, I discovered two hidden rooms and about eight or nine different tomes/notes that helped give me an idea of how this mysterious labyrinth came to be and what they were accomplishing before everyone vanished. The notes have a lot of care to them, some giving very little information about the incidents but mostly just outline the personalities and types of people who lived and worked here. The audio clues were simply fascinating as well, and it helped immerse me into the experience even more. This was where I felt like we started to deviate away from Bioshock and turn towards another Victorian masterpiece, Sunless Sea. The idea of the dark, steampunk world wasn’t just a vessel to propel a pretty good dungeon, it became a world unto itself, flushed out and given life even after death. I frankly wouldn’t be surprised if Fatbot wanted to make future titles in this world, and I would absolutely jump at the opportunity to play them and see more, perhaps even greater details of the land and the people at large outside of our pretty chatty protagonist.
Vaporum is such a refreshing return to form that I completely didn’t know I wanted nor was expecting. By taking two different gameplay ideas – dungeon crawling and steampunk – and marrying them without too many ridiculous offshoot tactics, you get something that’s distilled to a truly solid concept. I can’t tell you how many “steampunk” ideas have been hokey, or how many Bioshock “inspired” games might as well be called “Not Rapture.” And, rather than just be a straight Grimrock variation, Vaporum adds a huge twist on the leveling and combat system without giving up completely on the formula. For a first game, this is an incredibly impressive endeavor, and I’ve invested hours, yet I’m certain I haven’t found everything. By all means, step into your own exo-rig and prepare for an incredible journey, Vaporum deserves your full attention.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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