Vesper is a platformer in its truest sense. Platforms galore hover in mid-air, waiting for you to grab them. Half of the jumps you make will see you almost miss, before your stubby robot fingers snag the edge of your target and you haul yourself up. Force fields need to be deactivated to make progress, logs collected to reveal story beats, and there are respawning enemies who want to make your life miserable. There are plenty of platforming tropes embedded in the story of Seven, a droid abandoned on a mysterious planet, but Vesper tries its best to distract you from the familiar by way of stunning visuals and an opaque plot.
On the face of it Vesper might strike you as a robot Limbo. It isn’t. The challenge is there, but muted. Checkpoints are frequent. You’ll die numerous times and it won’t ever feel harrowing since the game does a great job of teaching you the mechanics, if not the goal or reasoning.
Initially, Seven is helpless. Enemies such as robot beasts and patrolling automaton sentries will off you in a single hit if they spot you. Jumping over them is one defense; hiding in convenient long grass until they pass you is another. Early doors, you’re just trying to stay alive and get to the next screen. When a location offers both left and right alternatives for progression, one of them will almost certainly be a dead end with a log to find. It’s almost comforting to know what to expect. The messages you receive may be text or holographic reenactments of previous events; neither of them will spell things out clearly, though the biblical allusions of the written logs are laid on thick at times.
Once you obtain the Drive Gun, the game steps up a beat. The weapon allows you to absorb light from various sources and then use that light as a bullet to activate doors and teleporters to progress. In a more interesting twist, it also allows you to take control of your enemies by transferring your consciousness to them. Once possessed, you can use them to activate terminals, attack other enemies, or blow themselves up. Most of the puzzles require manipulation of light from one place to another to allow you to proceed. As you journey further into the devastated ruins, Seven will acquire the ability to absorb multiple light bullets which are required to solve more complex puzzles. Even so, the game is incredibly forgiving about most of the puzzles you’ll encounter. Many of them can be completed in different ways — only the final few will pose any reasonable challenge.
Visually, Vesper is extraordinary. Cordens Interactive uses a combination of bright colours and swathes of black to craft a real otherworldliness to the planet Seven is exploring. It’s clear the team have a love of art; numerous screens pan out to reveal hulking wrecks of gigantic machines, radar towers and downed ships. In many respects, Vesper revels in its visuals far more than its gameplay which never bobs its metallic head above “average”. Screen after screen is devoid of life as you plod from one area to another, complete a simple navigational challenge, then continue. Sometimes you’ll get a flash of story that makes no sense, or a log that provides very little context. Occasionally some of the puzzles will make you think a little harder but rarely take more than a couple of minutes to crack — then it’s on to the next richly coloured area. There’s enough lens flare scattered through the game to make JJ Abrams blush.
When zero light makes an appearance — pervasive blocky tendrils that chase you and kill on contact — the adrenaline levels spike a little. Working out how to avoid these and hive them off from your path prove to be the more exciting aspects of Vesper. Even so, seasoned gamers will blast through without too much difficulty.
A mild spoiler here (though most players will likely thank me for it): the most frustrating part of the game is at the end where an optional locked door — most likely the key to making some sense of a bewilderingly obtuse story — remains barred unless you have decided to note down the symbols that flash up along your entire journey, along with their frequency. Is it worth going back and repeating the game to get access? I’ll let you decide. For me: no. Maybe this was the missing link I needed to decipher the confusing narrative, but the thought of spending another seven hours churning through empty (if pretty) levels was too much to bear. When the credits rolled, I was left with a feeling of “huh?”. While it doesn’t do anything bad mechanically, Vesper plays its cards too close to its chest, and even the beautiful surroundings couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been cheated.
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