Friday, December 24, 2010

Aquaria Review: Life is Much Better Down Where it's Wetter

Water levels have gotten a bad name in videogames, somewhere just above "Sewer Level" and a bit below "Ice Level." This is justified, as the control schemes for said levels tend to be atrocious. However, there is a game that proves conclusively that swimming controls can not only be tight, but also fun and engaging...

Ecco the Dolphin for the Sega Genesis!

And it's various sequels!

...but also Aquaria!

In this impressive debut from ambitious indy-developer Bit Blot, you swim around exploring a massive aquatic environment as a mermaid-type creature named Naija, and the controls for doing so are rather impressive; the entire game can be played comfortably with just a dual-button mouse, leaving your other hand free to hold a tasty beverage or pastry. To swim, you hold down the left button (no rapidly tapping A here), and the distance at which you position your cursor relative to your avatar determines Naija's speed and direction. It's not only intuitive, but it allows a high degree of control once you master it, allowing you to effortlessly dart between obstacles and enemies, push off from surface to surface, and stop on a dime (or sand dollar) to avoid danger.

And you will be thankful, because danger you will find. This game may be about a singing mermaid, but it's not for sissies. It's by no means the hardest game I've played, but it will challenge your gaming skills, particularly if you go after some of the optional side-bosses. For example, there is a crab boss who hangs from the ceiling and is immune to all your attacks. When I finally realized what the game intended me to do, I believe I said "are you mad?" out loud. Perhaps I failed to try some easier maneuver that would have worked, but frankly I wish I had this reaction to games more often.

I must admit, when I first started playing Aquaria, I wasn't hooked. It seemed reasonably well made, with excellent production values, but I'm not a huge fan of exploration games, and I found myself getting lost and a little bored. I had gotten the game as part of the Humble Indie Bundle (possibly the best $25 I ever spent, even when I could have paid a penny, or saved that penny by pirating it, like 25,000 people apparently did), and I had no particular expectations about Aquaria. After having some trouble getting Penumbra to run properly, I decided to give it a fair shot. Here are my three basic Aquaria tips for anyone playing for the first time.
1: Use your map. The world of Aquaria is larger than you think. Much larger. Even when you are confined to a smaller section of it, getting your bearings is crucial to avoid just swimming around aimlessly.
2: Save often. This game doesn't mess around. There's no auto-saving here, and save points are not all that abundant. If you pass by a save crystal and don't bother to use it, you will likely regret your decision.
3: Mark locations on the map. This isn't critical, but as this game is in the style of a Metroidvania, you will find yourself wanting to go back to some particular feature you saw, and not being able to remember where the heck it was.

Once I had put an hour or two into the game, I started to realize that there was a lot more to it than my initial impressions had led me to believe. Yes, the game's main focus is exploration, but along the way you face many challenges, and the game slowly unveils a plethora of interesting abilities to deal with them. Rather than revealing its hand from the get-go, there is enough interesting content to discover that the experience continually gets better as you play, which for me is an extremely rare quality. I'm glad this is the case, because the game took me about 20 hours to complete, which I wasn't expecting from an indie title.

The world itself is huge. When you start out, you have no idea how flippin' massive Aquaria's game world is. With no hub world, and the ability to "teleport" only gained late in the game, traveling from one place to another can be quite a daunting task. However the game's inherent challenge and its variety of locales and enemies generally keep traveling from becoming tiring. I tend to dislike exploration and travel in games, but the slow pace works, and is I think necessary here, to create a world that feels truly epic and immersive. Also the game never feels like it's sending you to and fro arbitrarily in order to pad its length. On the contrary you often get very little indication of where to go, and are free to explore the world pretty much however you wish, but you ought to pack a lunch.

Which brings me to one of the coolest features in Aquaria: the recipe/cooking system. Okay, no, hear me out. Remember what I said earlier about this game not being for sissies? You're just going to have to trust me when I say that the recipe system in Aquaria is one of the most interesting and well designed and fleshed-out systems I've ever seen in a videogame. The idea is that slain enemies and plants will drop a wide variety of ingredients (and logical ones; no squirrels and amorphous blobs dropping coins and broadswords here). You are then able to combine these ingredients in your inventory to create food items that provide various benefits when ingested, like healing or stat boosts. As the game progresses, you will encounter new ingredients and recipes for more and more powerful dishes, and like Eternal Darkness' brilliant spell system, you are free to experiment with combinations of ingredients to try and discover recipes yourself. Instead of grinding through combat for experience points, you'll find yourself hunting down particular enemies just because you really want to make some turtle soup. And dropped ingredients don't blink out of existence, they simply float down into the depths, requiring you to delve down after them. The whole system is extremely well balanced - ingredients are plentiful, yet you never have enough of what you need and will be forced to make legitimately difficult choices as to how to allocate them.

The other thing that really stood out to me was the music. For weeks I've been unable to get the main theme out of my head, and for once I'm glad. Many of the songs in the game riff off of this melody in interesting ways, and a huge factor of my enjoyment came from the way the music set a strong tone throughout. Music also plays an important role in gameplay, similarly to the way it's used in Ocarina of Time, except that you often have to sing a little tune in the heat of combat in real time. I actually wish that the tunes were a little more difficult to play and to remember, since these are some of the most intense moments of the game. The story is nothing revolutionary, but it gets the job done, and the excellent and abundant narration, combined with the music, really makes the experience.

On the negative side, the admirably simple controls don't always work the way you want them to when trying to perform certain abilities. And the lock-on system for projectile attacks is fine most of the time, but on a couple of boss fights I had to switch the auto-aim off to actually hit anything. The whole thing feels pretty darn polished though, and not just for being an indie title. The biggest disappointment is that the secret ending teases at a sequel that will probably never be.

On the surface, what might initially appear like a lame concept (seriously it's about a singing mermaid baking cakes) or a Zelda ripoff belies one of the most unique and engaging games I've ever played. It also goes to some surprisingly dark places (figuratively and literally), and in the end Naija probably racks up a body count comparable to that of Kratos, including deities.

To the prospective consumer: if you like exploration adventure games, this is a must-play. If you don't, give Aquaria a shot anyway. It just might surprise you.

And to the developers, Alec Holowka and Derek Yu: thank you for crafting this unforgettable experience. Aquaria is the kind of game that makes me proud to be involved with the hobby. Also I beat your stupid hanging crab boss.

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