I’ve come to consider physics puzzle games as very high risk, high reward propositions. The high reward comes from the emergent gameplay that… emerges from being able to fling blocks around or flood sections of levels or inflict other kinds of chaos on the game. But the risk is that your free-form simulation might not always agree with the solutions players, or even developers, come up with. Video game physics can be incredibly fiddly, especially when fiddling with liquids, so it’s kind of a wonder that Vessel works as well as it does. You’re going to run into plenty of puzzles that resist your solutions but if you can stick with it, it’s one of the deeper and more expansive puzzlers out there.
Your steampunky world is in the throes of a new industrial revolution, brought on by none other than your character Arkwright. He’s created a sythetic life-form called a Fluro, comprised entirely of animated liquid and capable of menial tasks. Fluros are now employed in virtually every factory in the city, but for some reason they’ve started getting a little unruly. After getting locked out of his lab by one, Arkwright sets out on a personal quest to clean up the messes his inventions are causing and hopefully prevent such events from ever transpiring again.
The tutorial portion of the game covers the basic mechanics, including running, jumping, yanking chains, hopping on enormous buttons, cranking enormous cranks, and splashing water everywhere. Most puzzles are going to center around getting a machine to do something, by opening valves or filling tanks or alligning nozzles or other mechanical puttering. You’ll either need the help of Fluros to make it happen, or you’ll need to rid yourself of meddlesome Fluros to keep the machines working right. How you do that will depend on your understanding of the machine’s operation, your tools at hand, and your ability to struggle against the game’s dodgy physics.
In the first hour of the game you’ll gain access to Fluro seeds and a liquid-pumping backpack. Fluro seeds attract water and form a happy, bouncy Fluro when they absorb enough, and these capabilities are used to their utmost right from the start. Your backpack can suck up all kinds of fluids (as you find new tanks to swap in) and spray them in all kinds of configurations with the right nozzles (which you’ll develop and unlock as you find secrets). These two tools together give you a great deal of flexibility in getting liquids and Fluros where they need to go for each puzzle, and allow you to make all kinds of messes as you slop water and lava and whatever else around trying to suss out solutions.
The physics hijinks help keep the otherwise dry (heh) mechanical puzzles from dragging too much, but the weakest parts of the game are always when you have to fight the physics for a solution. Once the tutorial ends you travel to different parts of the city to stop the Fluros-fueled chaos, and your first destination is a foundry. The whole place is an affront to OSHA with lava splashing everywhere and coating main walkways, and you’ll have to find ways across by blocking or cooling the lava with water. But the fluid particle system is a little too wild to provide solid solutions, so you might have a few instances of cooling an entire carpet of lava only to ignite and die when you step on it and sink a pixel too deep into it.
It might sound like I’m nitpicking but the entire game is plagued by plans and solutions that fall apart far too easily. Your Fluros are comprised of water and collapse if they lose too much, and just touching them or failing to provide an over-abundance to form from can make them pop at inopportune times. Blocking liquid flows can be an exercise in frustration as it fills and flows in increasingly aggressive ways. And using any kind of attraction like vacuums or seeds has to be very precise because of how wonky it can all go. These frustrations make the less physics-focused puzzles so much more comfortable and fun to work with, and if it wasn’t such an important gimmick I’d almost wish the fluids were dropped entirely.
I still think Vessel is a good puzzle game, but these concerns should definitely give anyone pause before diving in. This isn’t a relaxing, cerebral puzzler when you’re fighting the liquid physics to enact a perfectly obvious solution. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of legitimately challenging and interesting puzzles to face. Almost too many, for Vessel is an expansive game that could easily take you 10+ hours to finish. If you’re okay with investing that kind of time in a puzzler that plays fast and loose with its physics, you’ll have quite an adventure on your hands.