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{TGE} Aquaria - Review

The Gaming Experience

Aquaria

Aquaria Concept Art

 

One of the most popular themes featured in games is the ocean, with its deep and often exotic setting. Seldom do games actually manage to achieve a result that properly takes advantage of this. However, Derek Yu and Alec Holowka as partners of the independent developer Bit.Blot have come together to release a game that succeeds primarily on this very point. The game Aquaria asks you to explore a huge underwater world to discover its beauty and the dark secrets they hide. The gameplay is solid, though not without its quirks, and very rewarding. It is in the world it delivers, however, that the true achievement lies. As players face the challenges of each area and progress toward the final boss, they are brought into a deeper world where the gameplay becomes progressively less important to the game and to the player than the immersive sights and sounds.

 

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Premise

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The game offers first and foremost a magical world beneath the sea. Populated by many diverse locations, unique creatures, and hidden treasures, each corner of the ocean beckons the player to explore its depths. You will find yourself in undersea temples, expansive oceans, lush forests, and more as you reach further into its world. The game pulls you into this world and often invites you to be part of it. Allowing your character to rest on a seabed and gaze out into the ocean does not really have any effect on the game, but it gives the player the opportunity to take it in as if he were with the game's protagonist.
The story of the game actually revolves entirely around reliving the life of Naija, the story's protagonist. She is a creature who, like the rest of the Aquaria's world, is imbued with "the Verse" a central force in all the waters and creatures. She is content to live without memory or ambition until she is suddenly thrust into a new sense of consciousness. No longer satisfied with her peaceful life, she sets out to find answers, about the world around her and about herself. As you explore Aquaria, she shares her adventure with you while she encounters wonder, curiousity, love, but ultimately a loss of innocence. It is an experience that offers not only tranquility, but also a darker and almost unsettling mystery.

 

The Underwater World of Aquaria

What mysteries lie beyond Naija's home?

 

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Gameplay

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Exploring the world of Aquaria is usually graceful and intuitive. The game's central controls revolve around using the mouse to point the direction you want Naija to swim, and then left-click to dash into movement should you find yourself in danger. It's generally forgiving, offering an instant change of direction for avoiding the hazards, and also gives you a full 360 degrees of motion. The standard WASD keyboard control configuration can be used as well, but only gives you eight directions, making it more useful for situations where you will need to aim independently of your movement and for some complicated platforming situations. Analog control is also supported. The physics feel natural while swimming, however the dash makes it less about acceleration and more about maneuvering. Additionally, the game also features wall jumping and the occasional air pocket, both of which are also susceptible to the quirks with momentum. These do, however, offer plenty of advantages for some bosses and enemies for an experienced player.
Despite the prevalence of predators and boss creatures, combat is not the primary focus. However, the game doesn't consider this any excuse for downplaying the number of projectiles. Whether or not you choose to fight back, learning to dodge a flurry of attacks is an invaluable skill. To aid you in your quest, you will collect recipes which you can use to turn any pickups you harvest (whether violently or nonviolently) into special powerups that will help you withstand the more difficult encounters, along with costumes which will offer their own bonuses. You will earn the ability to use a basic attack form at some point, but this effectively replaces every special ability you have at your disposal. You swap in abilities using the Verse, which you can form melodies out of by right-clicking and dragging your cursor to the musical symbols in the right order. Swapping out is far easier, clicking with both mouse buttons to revert to your original ability and shape, but this does often result in a misfire, making the alternate key 'X' more handy.

 

Warp Turtle

This gentle creature will help you instantly reach faraway waters.

Each ability will allow you to explore deeper and in some cases offer you a different method for defense. Only two out of the six abilities are truly situational, depending on how you play, you may prefer to unleash a figurative hell with energy form, claw your way through obstacles with beast form, or attempt for a more pacifist approach in your natural form, et cetera. Once you reach a boss creature though, you'll find it necessary to experiment with each of the forms at your disposal to figure out how to expose its weak point. Some of them will then teach you a new song to use their powers.
As you earn these abilities, more areas are accessible. This forms the central foundation of the game's layout, which rewards you with plenty of secrets should you choose to return to an earlier area. The game's world is laid out in this exploration-based layout, much like Super Metroid, Cave Story, and some of the newer Castlevania games, but it is far less confined. You'll be using the map quite a bit ('Q' on the keyboard or selecting the minimap), allowing you to place markers or look for areas where you can cook the more complex recipes. The game also gives you the opportunity to use warp turtles should you be in a hurry. However, due to the layout of the game, it benefits the player more to explore in order to bring an admittedly steep difficulty curve down to a slightly more accessible level. Fortunately, there is no "point of no return" in this game, making it possible to go back and stock up on weapons or replay the game without starting over.
Even after the game has been finished, there's plenty of reasons to come back. For some players, searching for some of the more cleverly hidden recipes and treasures is a welcome reason to be immersed within the world of Aquaria once again. The recipes don't need to be found in the world, however, you can experiment or ask your friends if they have any of the more rare ones to share. If you wish you can try to decode the Aquarian alphabet and use it to read some of the messages written throughout the world. There are also three memories that will allow you to trace Naija's quest even further beyond the ending which aren't necessary for completing the game. Whether or not the secret ending is worth it may be a subject of debate, but the requirements for finding it are complex but not unattainable. On top of all of that, the game also comes with its own level editor. Its a tile and object based editor that offers you full freedom in making the level, though the tutorial is a bit hard to approach. If you have some understanding of LUA scripting, you can even change the characters and graphics for a total conversion. Unfortunately, the game doesn't have that many mods out there, currently with a story mod, a scenery mod, and an arena mod.

Aquaria: Seahorse

Tame seahorses with the power of the Verse.

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Sound/Music

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Quite possibly the most crucial aspect of the game is its music. One of the creators of the game is a talented composer with a passion for music, and as such the music is tied very closely to the game's levels and characters. All of them have the magical feeling over the ocean, but the melody and progression is fit to each area, whether it is lush and lively song for the Kelp Forest, the tranquil song for Naija's home, or song that seems to convey a feel of regret for the ruins. The game also is paced by its music. Most of the exploration-heavy areas have more ambient melodies while closing in on each boss's lair will sound more menacing, the battle themes themselves are exciting and sometimes terrifying, and the endgame's music is bound to get your heart racing if the gameplay and the story haven't already done so. Altogether, the production qualities of the game's music as well as the amount of it there is to enjoy stands out among indie games, to the point where it even has an official soundtrack in retail.
Naija's gift with "the Verse" is a huge part of the game. It is how she acquires abilities from the ancient spirits, it is how she finds treasures, she uses it to direct seahorses, it unlocks doors, weakens some enemies, and even leads some of the smaller and more harmless creatures to follow you. You can learn up to nine songs- not including those used to unlock doors- six of which are transformations and three of which are abilities for Naija in her initial form. While other games like Legend of Zelda's musical mechanics tend to take each song you play and then expand on it for each ability, each song in Aquaria is merely a pattern ringing notes, with no cutscene to interrupt the gameplay.
The sounds you will hear in the game are excellent quality, but none stand out the way Naija's voice does. The way the water rushes by when you dash into a swim, the different sounds for the different projectiles, the sound of your own jaws crunching a fish in beast form, and many others are all very satisfying to use.However, because you are living Naija's life through her eyes, you will hear her story almost entirely through her voice. Her sighs, her little laughs, her cries, and most especially the voiceovers help keep the game enchanting. The game's script is very demanding, requiring a full range of emotions and Jenna Sharpe, the voice of Naija, manages to cover every one of them without sounding awkward. The only instances where the voice is anything less than outstanding is active dialogue, partly due to the fact that the sprites aren't animated to display the feeling the voice communicates. Jenna Sharpe also closes the game with a beautiful song that truly represents the magic of this game and adds a beautiful anecdote to an outstanding game.

 

Aquaria Original Soundtrack

A special collector's edition soundtrack with fifty tracks, concept art, and more!

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Visuals

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As you explore the ocean, you can't help but notice the detail of some of the areas you'll find. Skittering crabs in the darker corners of the sea, the ornate pillars of Mithalas City, and the life-filled Kelp Forest all add to the feeling of exploration. However, the game also keeps the visuals consistent with the feel of the game. The game uses a darker palette for the more mysterious areas, a more colorful palette for the more awe-inspiring areas, brighter for freeing areas, and a more sickly or sinister palette for the more disturbing areas.
Each sprite is beautifully drawn, whether it is Naija in any one of her costumes or forms, or whether it is the bosses and other creatures you will find. However, the animation tends to be insufficient. It doesn't ever really get in the way except when shooting with your energy form, and during ingame cutscenes when you expect more activity out of the characters. Items and treasures are all easy to notice and identify. One particularly intriguing detail is the way the game makes each recipe's appearance help to indicate what ingredients are inside... with the exception of the generic and useless sea-loaf. Songs are also represented by symbols, and the game has its own alphabet with which it depicts its own writing.
The presentation of the game is usually excellent. The save menu, title screen, recipe menu, and map screen look quite appealing and are easy to understand. However, should you require to us 'F1' to look at the help menu, you will find it is just a really long body of text that skips to whatever it thinks is most relevent to your problem. Furthermore, the editor's interface severely lacks the polish of the rest of the game. Where the game goes beyond its own standards is the colorful storyboard cutscenes that will open and close the game as well as fill in some backstory. These do, however, make the lack of expressiveness in sprite-based cutscenes far more noticeable. Overall, however, the game is easy to look at and navigate through.

 

The Kelp Forest

The Kelp Forest is full of life... and danger!

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Personal Experience

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One of the first games I've played was a little game called Ecco the Dolphin II: The Tides of Time, andI really loved the atmospheric quality of its areas and music, though the gameplay was not quite refined and was frustratingly cheap. I'd also been introduced to Super Metroid which set a new standard for exploration. With Aquaria, I'd found a game that reaches the ambitious goals of Ecco while playing far better and featuring Super Metroid's emphasis on exploration.

I'd often play Aquaria as a means to relax, given the game's natural ambience. However, as I'd reached further into the story, I'd become emotionally invested in the character of Naija and her story, which made the end-game that much more significant... and that much more personal.

 

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Score

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{TGE} Grade: B

* Editor's Recommendation*

  • Story - 8 (It is not so much the story as the way it is presented. It has quite a few clever twists, but its the immersive quality of it that makes the difference)
  • Design - 9 (Recipes and inventory, the exploration, the use of transformations and powerups, the movement and combat... not to mention the beautiful rendering of an underwater fantasy)
  • Gameplay - 8 (The gameplay is solid and enjoyable from start to finish, and definitely works well with the all of the concepts explored.)
  • Presentation - 8 (The game deserves a perfect score for the music alone, not to mention the visuals and production values. However the animations sometimes leave something to be desired, and the interface for the help is hard to navigate.)
  • Total - 8.25

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  • Difficulty Curve - The game offers you every opportunity to make the encounters easier on yourself, with a recipe system for powerups, and pretty flexible costumes to help you keep yourself alive.
  • Audience - Fans of exploration based games like "Super Metroid" are sure to love this game, but the players looking for an immersive experience would get the most out of the game.
  • Replay - Collecting recipes, treasures, exploring hidden regions, retreiving memories, just enjoying the scenery, speedrunning, modding tools, an alphabet to decode, and more.

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Aquaria offers an ultimately rewarding experience, focusing on immersing the player in the beauty of its underwater fantasy, with beautifully detailed visuals, excellent soundtrack, dark story, and solid gameplay.

Bit.Blot has made an excellent name for itself with this game. Although they have indicated interest in returning to Aquaria, Alec and Derek have gone their seperate ways. Derek went on to create Spelunkey while Alec formed a new development team in his own home and has begun pre-production work on Marian, the spiritual sequel to this game.

 

Note: All images included in this review have been taken from Bit.Blot or Infinite Ammo and cropped and scaled to suit the review. For the full images, browse the game's home page.

 

Links:

 

Home-Page - http://www.bit-blot.com/aquaria/index.html

Store - http://www.bit-blot.com/aquaria/buy.html

Soundtrack - http://tinyurl.com/Aquaria-Soundtrack

Demo - http://www.ninj4comic.com/aquaria/AquariaDemo.2007.12.07.exe


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