Review: Aquaria
by JonasL (2)
February 3rd 2012

The Brief:

While I have a few small problems with it, I really enjoyed playing through Aquaria. The game is solidly constructed and gives the player a huge world to explore and ties it in with a compelling story.  With its slow pace and longer length, but is not a game for everyone, but for me, Aquaria was, more than anything, an incredibly soothing and charming experience. If you enjoy simple, beautiful games that offer more solitude than shooting, you might want to check it out.

The Details:

The game follows the story of Naija, a mermaid of sorts, who awakens in the underwater world of Aquaria without any knowledge of who she is or why she is there.  She quickly sets out into open waters with the hope of finding out about her past and what dark forces brought Aquaria to ruin.

Gameplay is built around exploration. The world of Aquaria is big and, though 2-D, does a good job of hiding areas and secret treasures. It made me feel like I was the first person to set foot on a new continent. And while not every discovery is crucial to the story, everything you find helps enrich the game. It compares best to Super Metroid, and even seems to wink to the audience a couple times about this connection.

Aside from being able to swim, Naija also has the ability to sing. This doesn’t sound like much, but it is her core strength. Aquaria is directly connected to an ethereal power called “The Verse.” By singing the correct combinations of notes (represented by colored symbols) Naija can move objects or change herself into more powerful forms.

The only other significant portion of the game is the inventory system. Besides the occasional costume or knick-knack, you will find plants, meats, and eggs that you can combine in different recipes to make food that will help you recover health, boost your speed, etc.  There are dozens of recipes and about half need to be figured out by experimentation alone.

Except for the occasional boss fight, the game’s mood is extremely serene. The colors and artistic choices are wonderfully vivid and the soundtrack ranks among my all-time favorites.

The Analysis:

I’ll get my game criticisms out of the way now so that they don’t interfere later on when I’ll be writing with such blind emotional devotion that a Shakespearean sonnet would blush.

The game’s controls are simple, which is good, except for when you are trying to move and sing at the same time, usually meaning something is about to eat you. The game is deceptively big. Starting out, I thought the game would last less than 10 hours, but after 25 hours I found myself really wanting to get to the end of the story. No, the game is not as big as many MMORPG’s, and I guess I shouldn’t complain that there was “too much of a good thing,” but the vastness of the world and the need to explore sometimes means you’ll go hours between plot developments. It reminded me of Far Cry 2: it’s an expansive world with plenty of things to find, but after a while you forget about the plot, which is a shame because (in both cases) it gains substance when tied into the game mood.

That mood is loneliness. Naija is isolated right from the beginning. Only phantoms reach out to her as she looks through the crushed remains of one society after another. She is the only one left, her own struggle with violence perhaps a remnant of what destroyed Aquaria. If the world didn’t feel big enough, the solitude will at least make her seem smaller.

The story works well and features solid voice acting not often seen in indie games. Naija narration sets the tone of the game and prevents the player from ever gaining that special silent-protagonist level of immersion found in first person games. Your decisions are her decisions and you must choose how to behave. This is her story, not yours; the creators don’t want you to empathize or to feel like the main character, they want you to pity her.

Here’s what I mean: Aquaria puts your gaming logic at odds with Naija, who goes against the grain of typical, destruction-heavy adventure games where all you do is hit things. You can kill just about every creature you come across in hopes of it dropping items, but you do so with the knowledge that Naija hates herself for it.

From the singing, to the music, to the ruins, Aquaria protests violence. Naija’s first two abilities are completely non-offensive, and once she does learn to attack, she is terrified of the power. By the final stages of the game, the she must become part beast or part demon in order to attack, suggesting a disconnect with her true self. Though some creatures attack you, the majority are peaceful. Either way, whether you destroy a mackerel or a monster, there is never a sense that it was a good thing.

Now I’m going to ask you to look at the game’s HD trailer. I know this article should be enough, but hey, Tyro made us play a whole game before understanding his review (check out his Eversion review and do as he says; the man speaks truth.) This kind of art must be experienced; analysis is like trying to describe a painting. Just watch it if you can.

I can’t say it is a great game, but it certainly is “great” piece of work. I don’t expect everyone to like it. The gameplay can get boring and the story might strike you as pretentious or cheesy. For me though,  Aquaria was an awesome ambient experience that managed to strike a chord with my emotions, even though I couldn’t tell you which ones.

Not new to the indie game scene, ‘Aquaria’ was launched in 2007 by Developer/Publisher ‘Bit-Blot’, a studio made up of Derek Yu and Alec Holowka. The game is available on PC and Mac through Steam and was recently turned into an iPad app. It is also available for Linux, having been released under GNU General Public License in mid-2010. ‘Aquaria” was featured as part of the first ‘Humble Indie Bundle’ and won the grand prize at the Independent Games Festival in 2007.

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