Vaporum: Lockdown is the perfect example of why I don’t like to use other games as comparisons in reviews. This is a prequel to Vaporum, a grid-based dungeon crawler that I never played. Its design is inspired by games like Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, and Legend of Grimrock…none of which I have played. Logic would dictate that I probably shouldn’t be playing this game, but I did and I didn’t hate it. If I had to make a comparison to a game I have actually played it would be Operencia: The Stolen Sun, another grid-based RPG.
This prequel opens with a pleasing and informative narration set to some gorgeous sepia tone story panels where we find that we will be playing as Ellie Teller, a scientist working on a mysterious project on a remote island. Naturally, bad things happen and Ellie gets trapped inside the tower of Arx Vaporum and will need to survive and escape. This all leads to several hours of traditional dungeon-crawling with plenty of real-time combat, puzzle-solving, and classic inventory management that fuels the RPG-system and character development. I’m a sucker for steampunk and Vaporum: Lockdown makes the most of that genre in design and atmosphere while crafting an engaging tale fleshed out with some quality voice acting.
The game eases you into the experience with a basic fetch quest for some batteries to power-up the nearby teleport pad. You’ll slowly figure out the grid-based movement system that hearkens back to the days of D&D with dungeons drawn on graph paper, an option you can actually choose when starting your game if you disable the auto-map. You collect loot and gadgets, some of which can be used as weapons to fight off various sentry drones and glowing rats, at least in the early levels. Creatures become more varied and more deadly the deeper you go and later, multiple enemy types will combine forces against you.
We’ve become so used to smooth gameplay and fluid framerates that it was certainly odd playing Vaporum: Lockdown with its jerky linear movement and pop-up boxes for tool-tips, inventory, and other menus. Everything is just very abrupt. The grid system limits your peripheral vision creating a few moments of surprise when a creature appears before you after a 90-degree turn. I often found myself just sliding sideways rather than turning to line up with a door or object. You do have the ability to free-look but only while standing still. Additionally, you have the ability to freely move your cursor around the screen to interact with various hotspots or perhaps discover a secret.
The game is around 20 hours with nine large areas to explore once you have repaired the mini-sub. You’ll uncover lots of audio recordings and reading material that not only embellishes the story but also helps you in solving the overall challenge of escaping the tower with cleverly integrated clues and tips. Puzzles are smart and nicely balance the combat portions of the game that can get a bit tedious. There are over 30 puzzles in the game and nearly all of them are optional but will reward you with some of the best items in the game if you can solve them.
Most combat basically consists of strategically lining up the enemies then trading blows until dead. You can mix up melee with ranged combat using a variety of weapons and objects, and quaffing some healing elixir as needed. The level of difficulty can be scaled by choices you make when setting up the game as well as various tactics chosen while playing, but the default difficulty is above average so expect a bit of a challenge. The ability to stop time plays a critical role in numerous puzzles and combat encounters and helps even the odds since many encounters find you outnumbered.
Vaporum: Lockdown is all about choice. You get to customize Ellie, which in turn dictates the way you play the game. You have four exo rigs that all factor into your stats as well as multiple builds that let you equip weapons and gadgets to presets that you can instantly call up, making it easy to go from a ranged shotgun to a sword or mace. The interface is clunky at first, at least with a controller, and for the first time in nearly 20 years I might have to admit I found a game that played better with a mouse and keyboard. Both control types work and both take some time to get used to.
Being a prequel I thought this would be a good game to see if I would enjoy the original, but in fact I found myself a bit lacking in knowledge from not having already played it. It was nothing game-breaking but I think those who have already played the original will have a better time and understand more of the references. As mentioned, there is a lot of lore scattered about the game in various forms, so the more you read and listen the more you will get out of the experience.
Despite my limited knowledge of the lore I still enjoyed my time with Vaporum: Lockdown. It has an old-school charm that had me flashing back to my days with Ultima Underworld, only now I had this whole steampunk vibe with a cool story, mind-bending puzzles, great level design, and some tactically thoughtful yet disposable combat. I wouldn’t mind seeing a variation of this game with nothing but puzzles. My only minor critiques are that I would have liked an auto-save (because I keep forgetting to save on my own) and some sort of hint system and maybe some added flow to the interface. Everything is so crisp and mechanical, which I guess suits the steampunk theme.
So if you enjoyed any of those games I mentioned in the first paragraph or even if you didn’t (like me) you can still have a great time with Vaporum: Lockdown. The story sucks you in but it’s the puzzles and combat tactics and the ever-changing environments and level design that will keep you playing until the end of this steampunk thriller.
You can also check out the first hour of the game on our YouTube show.