Vaporum: Lockdown Review

What do you think of when you hear the term dungeon crawler? The genre conjures images of fantasy environments such as verdant forests and decrepit ruins, navigated by adventurers wielding true-shot bows and colorful magic. But the minds behind Fatboy Fatbot Games think differently. The studio took the genre and transplanted the feel and mechanics into a world of steel plates and screeching grinders, where energy weapons and fumium-powered gadgets are the tools you’ll need to rely on to survive a metal tower of dreams turned into nightmares. Welcome to Vaporum: Lockdown, a steampunk dungeon crawler that relies on your wits to overcome the trials that the tower of Arx Vaporum throws at you.

A secret project

Ellie Teller. You are a scientist, determined to follow in the footsteps of your father, a man who had also devoted his life toward scientific progress. And it is progress above all that the Supreme Bureau mandates, the communist government that rules the Islands. When your former professor invites you to the opportunity of a lifetime, to participate in the next big project of the Supreme Bureau, you knew you could not refuse. And so you went on board, to work as a teleporter operator in the Arx Vaporum, a place that will forever change your life.

Shock and awe at the tower’s research and creations soon become horror and disdain, and it is at the latter stage we begin the game. A jaded Ellie finds her usual routine interrupted by an inexplicable incident that turns the tower against its personnel. Alone and confused, she must venture throughout the facility’s floors in order to escape and to learn of the travesty that has befallen her fellow scientists. It is your job to aid in her survival.

Square dancing

Vaporum’s a homage to the old school classics. If you’ve played games like Legend of Grimrock, you’ll be right at home here. (Old school enthusiasts rejoice: you have an option to turn off automapping and displayed game objectives.) With grid-based movement you move akin to a pawn on a chessboard, taking one step in a cardinal direction every time you want to walk anywhere. For a person accustomed to modern control schemes, having to use Q and E to turn can be a jarring transition, but you will get used to it in time. As the enemies you encounter are often more powerful than you, you have to learn how to effectively fight them; banzai charging into a dude with a shotgun isn’t going to get you far.

Normal difficulty has your opponents move at almost the same rate as you do. Though your basic attack will most likely be melee, your enemies may instead have their basic attack be a firearm, a laser, an acid attack, or even a fireball. Each enemy encounter is identical to solving a puzzle; you will have to build up a rhythm of dodging and weaving, square-strafing, and finding the right moment to attack to avoid certain death. You’ll also have to use the environment to your advantage against more difficult encounters, exploiting open areas and narrow corridors to get strikes in before they can strike you. Although this may be manageable against one foe, when an encounter features two or more monsters, you’d better have quicksaved beforehand. It is not unlikely that you will have to retry a fight multiple times before you come out on top.

Guns and butter

Vaporum may start you off with only a wrench, but to compensate for the enemy variety, you will expand your arsenal to become much more versatile than a construction tool. See, wrenches are considered blunt weapons, which are highly effective against anything mechanical. But what if you’re up against an organic enemy like a giant roach? Well, use a blade, of course! Maces and warhammers, daggers and greatswordsthe choice of what melee type to main is yours. But what if you’d rather not resort to archaic weaponry? Fear not, for this is a steampunk setting. You have access to your usual fun guns like pistols, rifles, and shotguns, but you also have some wicked energy weapons that deal high damage and potential elemental effects at the cost of a long cooldown and, well, energy. To top off your arsenal, you have thaumaturgical inventions called gadgets that act as abilities from a simple electric zapper to a cryogenic mine that applies a frost effect in addition to some hefty damage.

The damage you deal using your weapons won’t remain static. While Ellie will begin the game naked (equipment-wise, of course!) and afraid, you will find armor and equipment that provides bonuses to your integrity (health) and other stats like your weapon damage and energy regeneration. The Arx Vaporum was also kind enough to have provided you an exo-rig, from which you can upgrade using Circuit Points gained from absorbing fumium from defeated enemies. The circuit rank upgrades will initially start off as straight upgrades, such as more handgun damage or more damage resistance, but then you’ll reach circuit ranks that grant modules, giving a special skill related to the circuit category it’s in (e.g. rifles piercing through enemies). With such a wide range of weapons and skills and upgrades, there is a huge incentive to specialize in a specific playstyle. While the jack of all trades may weep, the guy who only wants to smash things with a giant hammer all game will frolic with glee at the fact Vaporum wholeheartedly supports his decision of going all in on the blunt skill tree.

Diary of a wimpy scientist

While most of your time in Vaporum will be spent on escaping the tower, you’ll still want to find out what happened to cause this pandemonium, no? The major story points will automatically unveil itself as you go through the game, but if you want to be clued in on the backstory and the minute details of the tower’s staff, you’ll need to keep an eye out for notes and phonodiaries written or recorded by characters both integral and negligible to the central story. The phonodiaries are especially interesting as they are fully voiced and may elicit response from Ellie when you’ve listened to them. Ellie herself has plenty of phonodiaries you can find scattered around the map. (As for why these are even scattered in the first place, don’t ask me.)

But you won’t be getting to these journal entries by walking five feet in front of you. The level design for each floor of the Arx Vaporum is riddled with puzzles, and you aren’t going anywhere if you don’t put on that thinking cap. The fun things you get to do in these puzzles include pushing crates, dispersing toxic gas, avoiding pits of spikes, and narrowly avoiding fireballs whizzing by your head. I’d like to know who the head architect is for this glorified death trap. Some puzzles will be rather basic, especially at the start where you just need to push a crate around to activate pressure plates or fill pitfalls. But there are also puzzles that genuinely makes you stop and think long and hard about how to solve them. It may take a while, but once you’ve figured them out, your brain releases chemicals as its way of patting you on the back for a job well done. Feels good, man.

Did you know there’s a ton of secrets you can find throughout the map? Vaporum won’t tell you that (well, outside of a tutorial message if you aren’t on old school mode). There’s no handholding whatsoever outside of the automapping and game objectives. Fatboi Fatbot Games knows their audience and treats them exactly the way they want to be treated: like [CENSORED]. If you got that old school, dungeon crawlin’, pen-on-paper writing itch going on, buy this game. Play it. You won’t regret it. And, if you get hopelessly stuck on a puzzle … well, better hope a let’s player gets to the part you’re at soon.

Vaporum: Lockdown can be purchased on Steam, GOG.com, and Humble Bundle.

You can also buy directly from Fatbot Games’ site here. (This gives them the most revenue!)

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