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Hydrophobia [Review]

Overall Feeling: 

Hydrophobia gets a much deserved shot at redemption thanks to the Pure patch, and thankfully the core issues the game had have been fixed and the game is a blast to play. Delving into a destroyed ship overrun by water, fire and electrical hazards provides an experience that I hadn’t experience in a game before, yes that even includes BioShock. While Hydrophobia still has a few issues concerning level variety, how many puzzles are present and a somewhat one-note story, the game has incredible promise and thanks to the fixes made by developer Dark Energy Digital the game is more than playable and is one of the more enjoyable games to be offered on XBLA.

The Pros: 

Water effects are really fluid and feel quite natural at times, even if they sometimes look a bit gelatinous in a way. Using the water to solve puzzles or kill enemies is cool and allowed me to think out of the box in a few scenarios. The action in the levels and their length is rather brisk and the overall length of the game on a first play session is perfect for the price of 800 MS points.

The Cons: 

The story is there but things don’t feel like they’re pushed as much as they could’ve been, even if you look at the game as merely Chapter 1 of a bigger tale. Would like if the designs of the Malthusians were more diverse and there were more enemy types. The levels are designed in a nice fashion, but there’s not enough variety to the world as it’s just one industrial room after another. Would’ve been nice if there were more puzzles instead of merely activating switches or unlocking doors. Rating : 

When a game comes out it’s pretty much over and done with.  In the eyes of gamers once a product is on the shelves or placed on the imaginary shelf space that digital services offer, there’s not much else one can do.  Developers can definitely fine tune things via patching, but at times we only get minimal improvements or we see such a thing used as a crutch for developers who either don’t know what they’re doing or were far too incompetent to realize that there were major issues that needed to be addressed originally.  But now we find ourselves in an interesting scenario as developer Dark Energy Digital has almost gone back to the drawing board with their patch for the XBLA game Hydrophobia. Originally released in September, Hydrophobia was a game that got some praise but had some glaring flaws to it.  But here we are over three months later and thanks to the Pure patch, Hydrophobia is essentially a new game and I’m glad I got the chance to try it out in its new form that thankfully doesn’t offer a murky experience at all.

Hydrophobia is one of those games that people may not know what to expect upon looking at it, especially with the rap the game got when it was released earlier this year. With its sci-fi setting and locales filled with water, one may be quick to assume it’s a more modern version of BioShock, especially considering it has characters that are anti-establishment and have their own mantra that isn’t quite on the same level as the charismatic Andrew Ryan. Set in the far future, Hydrophobia takes place on the Queen of the World, a gargantuan sea ship that makes the Titanic look like an amateur row boat that you would use to go fishing in a lake. On its tenth anniversary, celebrations are abound on the Queen of the World, that is until the Malthusians attack the ship in the hopes of killing most of the folks on it.  You see, the Malthusians aren’t a standard terrorist organization of sorts (no, the game isn’t Die Hard in the future on a boat) and wish to wipe out a good portion of humanity so things could be set right and the ever growing population will come to a halt.  Of course there’s someone standing in the way of the Malthusian’s plot and that’s Kate Wilson, an engineer on the Queen of the World who has to face her issues and haunting past as she tries to save those aboard the ship.

The story of Hydrophobia may seem a bit cliché and not all that interesting, but in its latest form, which has received a few edits in the cutscene department, things are adequate.  Assuming the role of Kate, who’s quite a capable lady, is nice and her character as a whole doesn’t seem like she’s trying to bump Lara Croft off the mantle as the resident “Badass Female Hero” ladder, but gamers will no doubt draw some comparisons between the two. The one area that I felt was sorely lacking in a narrative perspective where the Malthusians.  Yeah, it’s easy to get their basic goal (kill lots of people) but they’re pretty one-dimensional, both in terms of writing and design. Aside from a few cutscenes and seeing small quotes on the walls (more on that later), there’s not much to the Malthusians that got me invested in the story in terms of hating them nor are enough tidbits dropped that left me wondering about where things were headed when I wasn’t playing. And for being a group of futuristic terrorists who model their beliefs on a British scholar, they’re not that formidable looking. In fact, I kind of felt bad for them since most of them were bald or wore simple attire and masks.

Kate has to face her fears in this harrowing swimming scenario.

But Hydrophobia isn’t really setting out to become the next big thing and outdo tales like those featured in BioShock or Metal Gear Solid as it comes down to the gameplay.  Some of you may have seen a few of the videos for Hydrophobia a while back and may know that it heavily involves water, lots and lots of water. Playing the game and seeing all the water pour out of broken walls or burst through doors I couldn’t help but think that James Cameron would nod in approval upon seeing the game as there are moments when things definitely had an Abyss vibe. The water in Hydrophobia is really damn cool, not just in terms of seeing burst out of a door but in how it sets the mood and presents unique gameplay opportunities.  Going deeper and deeper into the Queen of the World I found myself entering areas that were either completely overwhelmed with water or required my immediate attention to drain it so I could access areas.  But there were also parts where I had to use the water to my advantage to reach inaccessible areas so water is indeed your friend given certain circumstances.  The water itself is almost a character unto itself in the game as it’s a constant element in the world and in some cases brings back the haunting past of Kate. 

Swimming in the game is rather easy and feels really responsive, especially in the situations where I found myself trying to swim faster than Michael Phelps so I could activate some levers before Kate met her untimely demise.  Some of the swimming situations can be quite eerie as when Kate’s on the brink of death, you know because of low oxygen, these rather spooky audio cues begin to play of a young girl’s voice calling out to Kate.  Playing the game I felt an almost ever present level of tension since Kate feels rather vulnerable the entire time.  It’s not easy to be killed, unless you accidently walk into some fire or another hazard, but Dark Energy Digital did a rather good job at showing how powerful water can be and creating some swimming sequences that are extremely nail biting and at times claustrophobic.  Hydrophobia isn’t an overly creepy game, but things are ratcheted in the final Act which is easily the best and most exhilarating.

Making my way through the Queen of the World and seeing water pour out and sweep me off my feet was something that I found to be extremely cool since not many games feature such a thing. Hell, there’s even underwater combat in the game as when an area floods the Malthusians were still on my ass since they were swimming after me. And I can’t help but say that it’s extremely satisfying to either drown a Malthusian by shooting him with Sonic round and seeing his stunned body being overwhelmed by the mass body of water that covers him.  Combat in general feels rather tight as Kate can take cover and switch between cover areas when necessary.  Hydrophobia isn’t a direct balls-to-wall action game, but when the combat scenarios pop up they feel rather inventive because of the possibilities they offer.  Shooting those pesky Malthusians with a Sonic round can take a couple of shots to kill, but thanks to the environment there are quite a few possibilities abound. 

I encounter some Malthusians in this combat scenario.

Aside from shooting explosive barrels (yes, they’re red so that means they go boom) I was also able to shoot electrical wires so they could fall in bodies of water to electro shock some fools or just shoot a nearby window and unleash some water to sweep the Malthusians off their feet.  One of the many updates included in the Pure patch for Hydrophobia fixes the combat controls and I’m glad Dark Energy Digital did that as things really feel responsive when it comes to shooting. I did encounter some moments when Kate didn’t go into cover when I wanted her to or couldn’t pop out and shoot even though I was on a standard column, but aside from that Hydrophobia is definitely on par with the majority of 3rd person shooting games on the market today.

Back when Hydrophobia was released in September a lot of folks weren’t digging the main controls for the game and how things felt in regard to the platforming.  I definitely shared some of their sentiments based on the time I spent with the game at PAX earlier this year, but playing the game now I’m really impressed with how things have been turned around.  Whereas climbing or jumping was somewhat clunky and resulted in some piss poor deaths, Kate’s platforming skills have been tightened up a lot and now feel right on the money.  As a whole Hydrophobia isn’t as platform centric or heavy as something like Prince of Persia or the old Tomb Raider games, but there are definitely moments when Kate needs to channel her inner Ms. Croft and clamber a bit to either reach a vent or swing to a nearby platform. Design wise the platform feels rather organic given the circumstances and I never found myself lost or figuring out where I should go, partly because there’s a constant on-screen indicator and because the levels are designed in a very tight manner while not feeling too linear. And plus, I’m on a damn ship that’s been blown up so I’m not expecting a lot of freedom but I never felt like I was a merely going from point A to point B as there’s some backtracking that actually feels logical.

The world in Hydrophobia definitely succeeds in establishing an atmosphere thanks to the graphics and how damn impressive the water looks.  As an XBLA game Hydrophobia may not be the best looking game out there, but the character models have nice detail on them and the world has a cohesive look – even if it’s nothing but grey industrial areas.  If I had one constant gripe with the game, it’s that the game doesn’t explore vast parts of the ship.  Consisting of three Acts, I found myself treading through water in areas that looked rather similar to one another in terms of size and general design. I of course expect things to maintain a level of consistency in the art design, but for taking place in such a huge ship, Kate seemingly seems to be stuck in all the industrial areas and not the cool public promenades that are hinted at early on. I wasn’t exactly bored going through cargo areas or vast walkways in the game, but I hope if we get lucky enough to see future installments of Hydrophobia that more areas are explored that each feature a unique identity and presence.

There are quite a few puzzles in the game, often of the environmental variety, but I did come across sections in which Kate drew upon her engineering background and had to hack security doors or take over security cameras with her MAVI gizmo.  Capable of highlighting key aspects in the world, the MAVI serves quite a few purposes as it helps point players in the right direction, helps them take over security cameras along with seeing cryptic messages otherwise unnoticeable to the common eye. The obvious yellow pointing arrows noticeable while in MAVI mode may be a turnoff to some, but it’s a required thing in this day and age when gamers can be oh so turned off by a challenge.  I also appreciated how accessible the hacking mini-games were but how they still maintained a level of pressure throughout since I was always given a time limit of around twenty seconds to match a series of wavelengths. Even when I screwed up and didn’t successfully hack the desired target on the first go, I immediately jumped back into it instead of hurling my controller in anger, which I tend to do in some cases. As a tool, the MAVI is nice thing to have around and coming across secret Malthusian messages or weird drawings helped create a level of immersion for me.  That, and the cool augmented reality visuals and puzzle like element offered makes the MAVI mechanic feel like it’s more than just a gimmick.

Kate's MAVI device is quite handy when the situation calls for it.

With the additions added in Hydrophobia thanks to the Pure patch, the game addresses the key issues gamers had and the game is definitely a better and more polished product.  Clocking in at around four hours in my first playthrough, Hydrophobia is a game that’s worth the 800 MS points it costs.  While the story could be fleshed out a bit and more variety could be added to the environments, the game still shines as the water effects and the scenarios the water provides are something that we haven’t seen in a game before. Is Hydrophobia an obvious tech demo? No it isn’t, not by a longshot.  Hydrophobia may not be the best game ever released on XBLA, but it’s an experience that should be checked out by gamers who want something fresh as the game offered a constant rush of excitement and sometimes fear I travelled through the Queen of the World. I hope we get lucky enough to see what Dark Energy Digital has planned for the series as it has the potential to become an epic franchise with further refinement based on how much quality the Pure patch offers.