When Steampunk And RPG collide

HIGH Finally killing one of these nasty shocking drones…

LOW … only to find there were two more behind me.

WTF Falling into pitfalls makes me question my own mental health.

First-person dungeon crawlers have fascinated me ever since playing early titles like Ultima Underworld and Arx Fatalis. The Vaporum series brings back that same retro vibe with its gameplay.

Featuring a steampunk setting, Lockdown follows the story of scientist Ellie Teller as she, while working on repairs in the Arx Vaporum tower, finds herself in quite a predicament. Robots and machines are going haywire, attacking everyone in sight. While exploring the tower, she will have to survive long enough to discover what’s going on while dealing with a familiar mix of puzzle-solving and fighting enemies.

Combat pits the scientist up against the renegade robots and various critters like rats and spiders. Weapons are varied and can be both melee and ranged, with a selection of rifles, pistols, daggers and swords. Secondary weapons are also available, powered up by an energy meter and offering secondary effects to Ellie’s attacks, like electrical shocks or poison.

Puzzles are mostly based around manipulating the environment with keys to be found, crates to be pushed or pulled, and switches to be deactivated. While at first deceptively easy, the puzzles tend to become difficult and eventually require quite some time to figure out. The enemies follow suit in this difficulty curve — while I mostly managed smooth sailing in the first level, the second floor saw me dying time and time again without careful planning.

Right after completing the first floor, the player is given access to the Exo-Rig — an extra layer of armor which can be improved by spending experience points gained after killing enemies. The rig’s upgrades are permanent and it cannot be re-spec’d, so these choices between different models shape the player’s style of gameplay. For example, a stronger armor might suit those interested in melee weapons, or long-range fighters might prefer a lighter model. It would be natural to think that after wearing the rig that things would get slightly easier… but no.

Lockdown‘s developers have implemented real-time action on a grid-based setting, which is a welcome change of pace that may lead to frustration when the player is trying to juggle weapons and inventory items while under attack. Luckily, it’s possible to pause the action to plan ahead, but enemies will frequently get free hits in while the player is performing actions. As a whole, Vaporum‘s puzzle and combat mechanics, while not spectacular, are functional.

One particular mechanic I found that needed work was breaking walls. Granted, doing so to create shortcuts or find secrets is a staple in RPGs, but when it is required to progress, these weak walls should be clearly indicated. Unfortunately, breakable walls are often the key to move forward in Lockdown and they’re hard to distinguish in some environments, and spending time randomly hacking away at vertical surfaces is not what I would consider a good time.

While the steampunk setting is fresh, it doesn’t lend much variety to the graphics — the visuals offer generic-looking textures, uninspired enemy designs and drab-looking locales. There’s also no music during gameplay, so the only audio is the sound of whirring machinery and approaching robots. The absence of a soundtrack does help with the foreboding atmosphere but, in the long run only adds fatigue to the gameplay.

Thanks to the graphics many environments feel like they’re repeated, which makes it easy to stop paying close attention to details. As such, falling into pits soon becomes a common occurrence that left me quite irritated, since moving on a grid doesn’t allow the player a full range of movement and one’s finger can easily slip one tile too far forward.

Lockdown‘s narrative follows familiar tropes with audio logs laying around that have to be played back to reconstruct key events, but they don’t do much in the character development department. The voice acting also features some noticeable dips in quality, with some actors sounding not very experienced (or perhaps just bored) which doesn’t help with immersion.

While Vaporum: Lockdown initially seems like an intriguing proposal, especially on the Switch where dungeon crawlers are fairly few and far between, it ultimately it ends up being just a perfectly fine experience overall, if perhaps a bit too derivative to be memorable. Only recommended for diehard dungeon crawl or steampunk fans.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Fatbot Games. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on Switch. Approximately 5 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: The game is rated T by the ESRB for Blood and Violence. While the narrative is mostly devoid of violence and salty language, the RPG features several fights against robots which will see the main character bleed. I would personally agree with the Teen rating.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All spoken dialogue is subtitled, but some enemies announce themselves via audio cues without visuals and can sneak up on the player. Text can be resized, but not altered. In my view, the game is not fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: The game is controlled with the shoulder buttons being used for each hand, the left stick to move and the right stick to look around. The face buttons are to interact with the environment and to use the various secondary weapons and gadgets.

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