25th January 2011 - There seems to be two different versions of Hydrophobia that everyone is familiar with now. The version that premiered on Xbox Live Arcade’s Game Feast on September 29th, and a leaner, more polished version of the title, labeled Hydrophobia Pure that came out around Christmas of 2010 and was re-priced from 1200 Microsoft points to 800. This review is of my experience of the latter, an experience that holds in my mind like water.
The story revolves around the character of Kate, who is an engineer on a small country sized boat called The Queen of the World. She is living her life like any other day when a terrorist attack happens and the boat starts to sink. With the aid of a few other support characters, Kate attempts to save as many lives as possible and escape herself. But, as the title suggests, due to an incident involving her sister drowning, she has hydrophobia.
The game is broken down into three acts. The first act is set to characterize Kate and set the background for not only the existence of the boat but the rationale of the extremists trying to sink it, namely due to overpopulation the boat exists and the terrorists believe controlled genocide is the only solution. It is noticeable that the game doesn’t really give the player time to breathe or to take in Kate’s character before it throws him or her into the more action oriented parts, and the gameplay further exacerbates this irregular pace and focus.
Gameplay, in the most basic sense, revolves around Assassin’s Creed-esque climbing and well done underwater swimming sections, as well as clunky third-person shooting controls, the schemes of which are very accessible and easy to pick up. Unfortunately, how those areas of gameplay are saturated is a bit unsettling. Dark Energy Digital’s Hydro Engine was advertised to have realistic water effects, not just visually like in Bioshock or Uncharted, but have water that acts like actual water would in a physical environment, and to be blunt, it works. In theory, this should lead to some very intriguing moments of terror and claustrophobia but the game never really seems to use it that well.
Most of the second act involves repetitive trekking around in knee high water, doing simple physics puzzles, hacking mini-games, and cover-based shooting against the terrorists taken from the Gordon Freeman school of combat, meaning to use the environment against the enemy as opposed to superior firepower, which even then boils down to shooting the red barrels the enemy ALWAYS seems to be near. The water in this act feels less like an overbearing force to be afraid of and more of a tool to be utilized, which I feel comes off as inconsistent, something that the core areas of the game can relate to.
The game tells you that Kate has hydrophobia due to a personal tragedy only once, and then doesn’t reinforce that fear in the player by having prolonged underwater sections for more than two minutes at best. The game comes off as a horror platformer with water being the personal fear to overcome, then falls into the mainstream trend of a third-person shooter for its majority, with the unique selling point and angle only breaking up the action instead of being center stage.
The game starts to come alive in the final act, where water actually starts to get overwhelming and dangerous to be around. Then, the game pulls a weak plot twist involving a character that hasn’t even been mentioned. To make matters worse, right when I thought the game would start picking up, it ends. Just cuts to black and rolls the credits with no resolution, satisfying ending or personal triumph. A challenge room is unlocked upon completion but all it really does is allow you to manipulate water in escalating combat scenarios, instead of let’s say, time trials or something.
Compared to other budget titles on XBLA, Hydrophobia looks really good. The water effects are noteworthy for their detail, but everything else looks like something from the last console generation. The lighting is well done but doesn’t really set ambiance beyond red sirens and water refraction. The movements of Kate’s character model are very realistic and are done well, but more than once I saw it jump around during some of the swimming sections, namely when coming up for air. There’s no visual irregularity or screen tearing that occurred and overall gives a real polished experience graphically.
The sound effects in Hydrophobia are really well done, especially in terms of running water or groaning metal, but when you get into the voice acting department, it goes downhill. The voice actor doing Kate sounds inconsistent with what’s going on and the supporting cast feels like they’re phoning it in. Here are two bits of advice, Dark Energy. First, let your voice actors see the characters they’re voicing. There’s an overweight support character that helps Kate throughout the game, and I swear to god whenever he spoke he sounded more like a Scottish version of internet sensation Fred than, say, Brian Blessed or Ricky Gervais. On that note, pick an accent and stick to it. Seriously, Kate goes between five different accents before settling on a generic panicked girl sound for the rest of the game.
For a budget downloadable title, Hydrophobia is well priced at 800 Microsoft points and will last you about 4-5 hours, but aside from its realistic water effects, it does nothing new that other more well funded projects have done previously or better. It gives the overall impression that the guys at Dark Energy were trying to make something original with their engine, then got cold feet at the last second and said, “Throw in some shooter mechanics and terrorists, that way we know it will sell.” Guess they didn’t see other successful indie titles such as Super Meat Boy, Braid, Limbo, Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, The Undergarden, or Amnesia The Dark Descent, all games with minimal to no combat but sold well in so many different areas. It’s the very reason I play downloadable titles, to get away from trends happening in the AAA industry. Titles such as these are around to push gaming’s boundaries and standards, they’re practically obligated to take risks and explore. Hydrophobia, by comparison, gets on the bandwagon of doing something new, and then hops off halfway for the safer, more traveled road of mediocrity.
Hydrophobia is a really well looking tech demo with the bare nuts and bolts of a game stuck on. If you’re interested in how the effects are used then feel free to check it out, but don’t expect something amazing.
AAG SCORE: 6.5/10
+ Amazing water effects
+ Good premise
+ Great sound effects
- Technology isn’t really well used
- Mostly generic gameplay
- Subpar voice acting
- Weak ending and wasted potential
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey