System(s): Mac OS X
Release Date: November 13, 2008
Publisher (Developer): Ambrosia Software, Bit Blot
Pros: Utterly gorgeous, intuitive gameplay, an engrossing world, smart design.
Cons: Gamers with itchy trigger fingers need not apply
Overall Score: Two thumbs up, 98/100, A, ***** out of five.
It’s a funny thing about being a Mac-owning gamer – it’s so rare that anything genuinely interesting comes to the platform that it’s almost a shock when a title with as much polish and ingenuity as Aquaria shows up. The 2007 winner of the Independent Games Festival’s highest honor, the game arrived on the PC early in the year, and it’s just recently dipped into the Mac’s open waters. The most important thing I could possibly say from a consumer point of view is this – if you have any interest in games that feature exploration and adventure – grab this one up right now. I mean it – download the game, load it up, and let the undersea aesthetic take you far, far away.
That Indie Charm
Right now, independently produced games aren’t very far off from the position that indie films occupied in the mid 1990s – commercially “new”, often fresh, and frequently very simple, rough experiences. A few games in 2008 began to challenge the less desirable elements of this assumption, popularly the deep, thought-provoking Braid on Xbox Live Arcade, and now, Bit Blot’s entry for game-starved Mac owners eager for something beyond a The Sims expansion pack.
In fact, the game is something of a revelation for players interested in exploration and evocative storytelling, rather than the aggressively violent action served up so giddily in so many other titles. Visually and aurally, the title is a dream, with smooth animation, beautifully realized hand-drawn graphics, superb voice work and excellent original music. In terms of style, it’s much more The Little Mermaid than Finding Nemo, and all the more charming for it.
All the Right Moves
Gameplay wise, Aquaria is like the mellow cousin of a 2D Metroid title – the game is all about exploration, with players taking on the role of an amnesiac mermaid – Naija – and scouring the depths of Aquaria’s many underwater caverns for the secrets of this undiscovered world. There are mild RPG-like elements, such as an ability to combine items into spells and an upgradeable song/power-up system, all handled intuitively via mouse. Gameplay is balanced nicely among puzzle solving, enemy encounters and pure scenery ogling, while the intuitive map keeps frustration to a minimum.
The title rises well above most indie-game expectations by not only having its technical and design elements in place, but by offering such a polished, rewarding, and sufficiently different experience. In an era of so many “me-too” games and gritty, gray color scale experiences, Aquaria offers exactly the trip down the rabbit hole that jaded gamers need.