Mac Publisher: Ambrosia Software
System Requirements: Mac OS X v10.3.9, 1.42GHz G4 or any Intel Mac
Review Computer: 2GHz 20″ Intel Core Duo iMac, 1GB RAM, 256MB ATI Radeon X1600
Network Feature: No
Processor Compatibility: Universal
ESRB Rating: E
Availability: Out now
I have played a Yes album cover; a Yes album cover with an Asia title. That’s not even a joke. I’m serious. Playing Aquaria from Ambrosia Software was like jumping into the cover of Classic Yes and having myself a good swim. And not just visually, but musically, too. The game sounds like a Yes album. Or, more accurately, like a Yes member solo project; Rick Wakeman’s keyboard interpretation of the loneliness of the sea. In fact, the character you play, Naija, kind of looks a little like a composite of the members of Yes. Bill Bruford’s face? Rick Wakeman’s haircut? Steve Howe’s ears?
Again, I’m being totally serious about all of this, but that doesn’t mean you have to have to be a fan of Yes to enjoy this game. Everyone should enjoy this game. I don’t care if you’re a hard core gamer or a casual gamer. I don’t care if you prefer action or adventure. Aquaria has just about everything a gamer could want, and just enough of it to keep you going past the occasional boring and confusing bits. It never goes full tilt in any direction, but hard core gamers will see it as a light way to settle down from some intense first-person shooters, and adventure gamers will see it as a way to spice up their gaming sessions.
In Aquaria, you play Naija, a sea creature who wakes up one day to find herself alone in the ocean. We don’t know much about Naija, and she doesn’t know much about herself. Her story is revealed as the game progresses, and as her past becomes known, she’ll acquire new powers to help her through the adventure.
The game takes place under sea, with new areas being revealed as Naija reaches them or unlocked as she solves the puzzle on how to access them. Exploration is the key, here, and you’ll be doing a lot of it. Perhaps too much of it. The maps unfolds into huge areas full of color and life, often with many exit points. The map indicates items of importance, but doesn’t always tell you how to get there, so you’ll spend a lot of time swimming back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, trying to solve some sort of puzzle on how to get past a locked door, wondering all the while if you’re even able to get past it yet. This portion of Aquaria can prove terribly frustrating, and if players do abandon the game, this would be the reason. There should be some sort of built-in clue system to help players determine if they’re on the right track. A simple, “I don’t think I can get there yet,” from Naija as you try to unlock a door would suffice. Spending an hour or two working through a game in an attempt to find something, anything new to do will kill the experience. And honestly, if I didn’t have to review this, I would’ve bailed.
I’m glad I didn’t, and I’m glad Ambrosia provided me with saved games so I could proceed. If you can get past the periods of repetition and frustration, Aquaria is full of rewards; the gameplay becomes more diverse, the story branches out, and new characters are introduced, some of whom are under your control. Ends up, the ocean isn’t as lonely as it originally appeared.
When the game is flowing properly, it’s a lot of fun to explore. Naija’s movements are controlled entirely by the mouse in a manner that requires no HUD to interfere with the game’s graphics. Point and click or click and hold. It’s that simple. She acquires spells and learns songs throughout the game that give her unique abilities, and you can “sing” them by clicking to pull up a wheel of colorful shapes and selecting them in the proper order. It’s very intuitive and very clean, but also very responsive. Whether just swimming around or fighting one of the games myriad (and very challenging) bosses, the control system is effective without ever getting in the way of what you’re doing.
And yet, the developers kind of got in the way themselves by creating a weird recipe system that severs the flow of the game for no noticeable reason. When Naija kills a sea creature, it’ll often drop an object that can be “cooked” with others to create a health boost or other helpful item; different combinations produce different results. Having to stop the game to learn recipes was annoying and intrusive, and felt like it was part of a different game.
But you can get past that, because the game’s worth it. Although the story is a bit melodramatic and takes a couple weird turns along the way, this only contributes to the overall feel of the presentation, which is dramatic itself. The artwork proves that graphics don’t need to be “realistic” or even 3D to be captivating, and that style and art trump technology every single time (which isn’t to say that Aquaria isn’t a technical achievement). Even better when that style ties together the entire package: visuals, audio, gameplay, tone. Even the voice acting is top-notch, which is rare in computer gaming where overacting is the norm. The actress playing Naija, Jenna Sharp, was given some pretty corny things to say, but her delivery makes the lines feel real and logical. I’ve read that she’s not a professional voice actress, but she should be soon.
You’ll notice I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the gameplay in this review. This is by choice, because the gameplay is so simple to learn and so tightly integrated into the overall experience that you’ll often not even realize you’re clicking and dragging. Aquaria—although not perfect—is a well-planned and wonderfully executed game from just two developers who had a solid vision of what they wanted to achieve. And aside from a few questionable choices, they nailed it.
I just wonder how many times they had to listen to “Close to the Edge” to get there.
[Note: The game comes with a level editor. You'll have to tell me how that is. I don't mess with those things.]
- Also see Gamertell’s review.