If you don’t give Hydrophobia a good review score, chances are the creative director of Dark Energy Digital might start calling you up, accusing you of not playing the title, or suggesting that you’re playing it wrong. It was my intent to ensure I completed the game before putting the review up. That was until the save game fiasco. Now, yes it was my fault for selecting load game, and then Act 2 without properly reading the pop-up message that said things would be overwritten. But then I wrongly assumed that “load game” actually meant loading my game I’d spent several hours playing, not that it would wipe all progress. I have played the game extensively; I wasn’t prepared to trawl through the whole experience again to get back to where I was. How hard would it really have been to have generated a new save file? Single file save systems often suck and losing hours of game time sucks more so. Sadly this isn’t the only downside to Hydrophobia.
The story revolves around Kate Wilson an engineer on the Queen of the World, a city inside of a massive ship. Kate has a fear of water, so choosing a job that takes you on a transport that surrounds you with the stuff suggests our heroin never paid much attention to her career advisor. Unfortunately for Kate during a huge jamboree terrorists manage to take over the ship; these “Neo-Malthusians” are intent on controlling the world population by eliminating rich and privileged people it seems, and poor Kate ends up being the only person able to save the day. With the guidance of Kate’s boss Scoot, a chap with a rather unconvincing Scottish accent, it’s up to the poor girl to save the vessel, a mission that is filled with platforming, puzzle solving and combat.
There is one very impress aspect to Hydrophobia, which shouldn’t go unrewarded – the clue is perhaps in the name; Hydrophobia has a very real feeling water physics engine. This isn’t just about how the water looks, it’s about how it behaves, the flow, the momentum and sometimes it’s downright frightening. At certain points in the game water will come flooding in like a scene from Titanic – it adds an amount of urgency and thrill to the journey. Yet when you start looking beneath the surface, you begin to wonder if Dark Energy Digital has spent so much time getting this aspect right that it’s been at the expense of everything else in the game.
A good chunk of time is spent puzzle solving and there are two aspects to this, both of which quickly become chore like. This is mostly because it’s exactly the same thing over and over again, most of which entailing unlocking encrypted doors. As smart as the Neo-Malthusians are, with their ability to take over and lock down a ship, they seem to be pretty lax when it comes to keeping the secure codes secret. The first thing is obtaining frequency keys – these are either found on desks on digital pads or stuffed in the pockets of dead terrorists.
Once the keys have been obtained, they can be loaded in to Kate’s Mavi computer. This is a pretty cool translucent computing device that allows hidden aspects around the environment to be seen and interacted with, such as looping though camera surveillance feeds to activate doors that otherwise would be unreachable. Kate can use this device when on a solid platform, or when she’s under water, but bizarrely not when she’s simply treading water. It’s an interesting dynamic that would have been great to have seen exploited in far more varied ways.
With the frequency key loaded, the Mavi is able to uncover the secret codes written on the walls by the terrorists – huge great yellow arrows that point to the encryption key location. Once spotted, often requiring a fair amount of platforming and swimming to get to, these can finally be loaded in to the Mavi in order to unlock the encrypted doors, and so the adventure contiunes, until you reach the next encoded barrier a little further away. Again and again and again and again.
Adventuring to find the codes isn’t helped particularly by the control you have over Kate – given the amount of water around, it’s exasperating that the control system isn’t as fluid and dynamic as the H20. Swimming in particular is frustrating, with Kate never really feeling like she’s doing what’s asked of her, getting stuck on underwater objects obscured by awkward camera angles. Leaping across gaps and climbing up pipes and ladders works better, yet determining where you’re suppose be travelling to is an infuriating exercise, a problem compounded by the odd choice of making the Y button jump. You will be cursing every time you fall to another insta-death because you pressed the A button instead.
The repetition doesn’t get spectacularly better in the combat. When Kate finds a pistol at the beginning of Act 2, you might mistakenly believe that you’re going to get your rage on. The pistol turns out to have sonic ammunition, so it’s down to using items within the environment to take out the enemy, causing barrels to explode, electrical cabling to fall from the ceiling or water to rush in drowning everything. Other types of ammo can be found later in the game, but it does little to enliven or invigorate the shooting aspect. There is some gratification to the combat at first which slowly drips away, due to seemingly having to fight against the environment you’re trying to use all the time – get yourself in the wrong place and it’s an insta-death for you. At this point you’ll find yourself way back at the last check point having to go through the charge, shoot, knock down, charge, shoot, knock down, charge, shoot, knock down until finally the fiends stay dead, all over again. It’s like bloody Groundhog Day, just without the hilarity of Bill Murray.
Hydrophobia is meant to be a trilogy, meaning we can expect another two parts to flow down the line, but unless some changes to the saving, puzzles, combat and controls are forth coming in the sequels, they’re likely to be equally as washed out. Now, where’s my towel at.