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    Oct 26th, 2009 at 19:05:34     -    Aquaria (PC)

    Summary: Aquaria has a very intuitive interface and smooth playstyle into which it is easy to become absorbed. The haunting soundtrack and cool color palate give the game an ethereal, dreamlike quality that is an extension of the basic plot. The simple goal of the game is exploration which, while initially delivered with a common hook, quickly becomes engaging and immersive and very enjoyable.
    Aquaria won the 2007 Seumas McNally Game of the Year award at the Independent Games Festival in San Francisco. It was brought to my attention through the 2009-2010 Game Design and Development Class at Colorado Mountain College as an excellent example of a 2-D game. So, I downloaded the demo to play through it.

    First Impression:
    My first impression is that the demo does not seem limited at all. It may be a truncated version of the full game, but I was quite surprised with not only the number of playable hours but also the richness of those hours. The initial story hook sets the tone for an open-ended exploration of the game world, one that the player seems free to take at his or her own pace. The backgrounds are colorful yet not intrusively so, use a cool, calming palate, and give the remarkable impression of depth despite it being a 2-D playing surface. There is an air of mystery to the waters of Aquaria, a mystery that the haunting soundtrack compels the player to explore.

    The game interface is almost entirely mouse-based and has a very unique, intuitive, streamlined feel that felt advanced without being complicated at all: in some ways, reminiscient of switching from an old version of Media Player to iTunes. It is very easy to navigate, and the in-game help makes it painless to learn. The ease of the interface allows it to fade into the background, letting the player direct attention to other aspects of the game. There are some few things, such as accessing the recipes and inventory screens that cannot be managed without keystrokes. Moving around the gameworld and invoking the very imaginative powers that Naija acquires, however, are all done almost entirely without input of the keyboard. I say "almost" simply because I noticed it was impossible to swim using only the mouse with Naija "feral" mode with her fire shield power completely charged (i.e., with the right mouse button held down). In order to use the power, Naija had to stop, charge the power, and then fire it before being able to swim again. Since many of the enemies required Naija to be constantly moving, this led to a fairly high rate of damage. I discovered it was possible to maneuver using the keyboard while having the power charged. Otherwise, however, maneuvering using the mouse was much preferable.

    The backgrounds were rich, despite being two dimensional. The layering gave much apparent depth to the vast caverns of Aquaria, narrowing inconspicuously to the tight tunnels leading from one area to another. The creatures were inventive, with touches that added much to the world, such as the tiny jellyfish that seemed to congregate around Naija when she would come to rest. While these little tweaks have no real impact on game play or the story, they are the icing on the cake that helps to set Aquaria apart.
    Animation of the characters was a bit more variable. The smaller players (fish, jellyfish, and smaller enemies) had little to animate. Naija and the bosses, however, did. For these characters, there seemed to be a limited number of articulation points; for example., Naija's knees did not move when she was swimming. Though far from choppy, it gave these important characters the look of cutouts and a somewhat "retro" feel. This was not a distraction, though seemed perhaps slightly contrary to the smooth, intuitive feel of the rest of the game.

    Overall Gameplay:
    Truly, it is easy to see how the game was selected for the award. The interface is very intuitive and easy to learn via the in-game hints. The progression of skills and abilities available is easy to follow, and at a pace that makes one eager to discover the next ability and learn to use it, rather than becoming bored at the pace or overwhelmed. Furthermore, I found the abilities and the way they were executed to be quite ingenious -- for example the telekinetic power is not something usually seen or implemented, but was done in Aquaria to remarkable effect. The storyline presents a compelling mystery, and while the "amnesic main character" mechanism is overdone it is the only thing about Aquaria that is anything less than imaginative. Even this is forgiveable as after the first few minutes of the game the world draws one in and beckons one ever onward. The plot is open, and the player can spend as much or as little time wandering through the world as he or she wishes, though access to some areas is limited by the abilities acquired as the game progresses. The ethereal soundtrack, effortless interface, and engaging story add up to an immersive, almost dreamlike atmosphere and a very, very worthwhile game.

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