A few months back, I was informed of an offering known as the Humble Indie Bundle. Seeing it as an opportunity to finally pick up a copy of World of Goo, I bought in. However, my brother quickly insisted that I try another one of the games in the bundle…
Aquaria is an aquatic platformer. More specifically, an aquatic platformer with gorgeous art, beautiful music, and a focus on semi-linear exploration. If Braid is one possible expression of “Super Mario Bros.‘s almost nonexistant story done right” (A review for another day), then Aquaria is an expression of “Super Metroid done right”.
Everything about the game seems carefully crafted to emphasize the atmosphere around you and it makes exploration a treat, there’s a wide variety of enemies, and the “forms” system throws back to the various weapons Samus had to use… though with less focus on different attacks and more on different skills to pass region barriers.
However, it is still firmly a platformer, so while the story gets a fair bit more work than Super Metroid, there are some rough edges which clearly show that storytelling was not the creators’ specialty and that, while a significant improvement on Super Metroid, improvements still could be made.
The combat mechanic does sometimes take precedence in situations where it’s detrimental to the atmosphere (for example, the boss battles where, without fail, you have to defeat enraged or corrupted gods, receiving boons from them in moments of lucidity before they finally die) and the descent into the abyss near the end of the game does make the game less engaging… something a corresponding increase in story-focus could have mitigated.
However, given how rare Metroid-style exploration platformers are and how much I enjoyed exploring the world, I’m willing to forgive that somewhat. It would definitely have been nicer, though, if they’d provided more “ancient turtle” warp points. (The three largest regions in the game still only get one apiece and one surprise region of respectable size gets none at all, while the surface waters get two) More frequent save points would also have probably been a good idea, given that not everybody is as flexible with their schedule as I am.
A more significant problem, story wise, was the feeling that, toward the end, the story was at once both rushed and sparse. Structuring the game more like an essay, with most of the abyss-crawling in the middle and the triumphant revelation of the coral reefs of the surface (or some “beyond” area) would have helped significantly, as would more voice-acted “vision” sequences. As is, it feels as if it’s building toward something as you head for the surface waters… and then the plunge into the abyss quickly ends the story with loose plot threads being tied up before they could fully be developed.
The fact that, apparently, some recipes in the cooking system are alternate paths to dishes and can only be found by experimentation further develops this impression as players tend to measure their progress by the proportion of discoverable items they’ve found compared to the total number. Speaking of the cooking system…
I did find the cooking mechanic enjoyable, primarily because it let me handle my health and powerup management in my own distinctive fashions (and because I used to play games like Harvest Moon), but I felt that, to use a programming term, the set of recipes was oriented too much toward depth rather than breadth. Too many ingredients useful in only one recipe, too many recipes that require multiple steps, and too much dependence on a small set of core ingredients that aren’t proportionally available unless you grind sources of them. Nonetheless, it was fun.
Finally, the collectable trophies seemed too “collectable for the sake of having them”, given how thoroughly hidden some of them were. (In some cases, you have to either know where they are already, or be just plain insane to find them) Of all the trophies I collected, the one I still like most is the ever-respawning pot of fish meat. (one of those few over-utilized base ingredients I talked about)
Overall, it gives the impression that the designers had plenty of skill and envisioned something that they, at the time, didn’t realize would be twice as long as they had the budget for. Nonetheless, I’d give it a solid 4.5 out of 5 and encourage anyone who enjoyed the old 2D Metroid games (or enjoys 2D platformers and 3D Metroid).
P.S. If you really want to feel the atmosphere to its fullest, let a friend or family member wait through the intro that plays the first time you start the game so you don’t see it, then click on the crystal in the menu screen to view it (for the first time) after completing Mithalas Cathedral. That way, you won’t have any potentially inaccurate preconceptions to color Naija’s initial realization that she knows nothing of her origins.
Update: If you get the chance, listen to the special OST-only track “Fear the Dark” before and after you play Aquaria. It’s a beautiful piece (preview) and it does a beautifully clever job of hiding its relation to Aquaria so that you only “get” it once you’ve beaten the game. (Thanks to their clever use of pronouns and implicit subjects, it just sounds like very beautiful, if ordinary, love song unless you know who is being talked about)
Game Reviews: Aquaria by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.