This article originally appeared in Dev.Mag Issue 20, released in February 2008.
A stunning setting, an involved story, and a gargantuan world to explore. This is the promise of Aquaria, an indie title nearly 2 years in the making, and winner of last year’s IGF grand prize. Diving into this action-adventure styled game is thus an exciting prospect.
The idyllic land of Aquaria is a massive undersea world consisting of deep abysses, massive open caverns and narrow passageways, inhabited by hundreds of aquatic beings, some peaceful, some hostile, all very unique. You’ll find yourself drifting through the waters, admiring how light filters through cave ceilings, how the entangled reefs sway as you swim through them, how certain creatures are drawn to Naija as she sings, and how right everything feels.
Naija, the mermaid the player controls, begins the game with no memory of her past and little ambition for her future. The appearance of a mysterious figure prompts sudden curiosity in her existence and she sets out in a massive quest to discover who she is, whether or not she has any kin, and why the world doesn’t feel quite so right immediately outside her home waters.
Possible routes of exploration branch out exponentially once Naija penetrates the open waters outside her more familiar personal boundary which also, conveniently, serves as the boundary of the rather extensive trial version. In fact, the sheer size of the world is rather overwhelming and this fact is only compounded by the general lack of direction supplied by the game. You may find that, because of an unfortunate choice of paths, you’ll reach many avenues where you are unable to proceed due to lack of correct abilities. This results in occasional frustration with the lack of apparent progress. However, persistent exploration will usually yield a path where secrets can be discovered or advancement can be made, and the feeling of frustration is usually replaced with a new sense of awe at the discovery of a new locale.
Among the areas Naija will visit, impressive both visually and in scale, are ruined cities of mysteriously absent civilizations, massive reefs, huge open waters, and a deep, gloomy abyss as dark as a void. Most of these regions will yield new powers to Naija as she explores them, progressively unlocking more areas in the process as well as enticing her to venture further and further in pursuance of the secrets of the underwater world. These ventures often culminate in a major boss conflict, usually for the most important song of the region. As she explores and discovers new powers, Naija experiences flashbacks of her own history or the history of the area and its peoples. These serve to advance the story, as well as provide a reward for the player’s efforts.
Naija’s greatest and most unique asset, her singing voice, grants her the ability to manipulate the magical energy of Aquaria, which she refers to as the Verse, allowing her to move massive objects, create an energy shield impervious to projectiles, or even completely change her physical form. To perform a magical feat, Naija needs to sing a specific string of at least 3 notes from a circular 8-note scale. On their own, single notes also have other uses including cracking open certain plants, attracting sea life of the same ‘colour' as the note, or for solving other miscellaneous puzzles. Alternate forms grant her special unique traits, including offensive attacks, the ability to traverse very narrow passageways, thicker skin and other, more exotic, powers. These new transformations represent the progress in the game, with new abilities granting Naija access to previously untraversable environments, once again exponentially increasing potential avenues of exploration.
Another unique ability in Naija’s repertoire is her ability to create special treats from various ingredients scattered throughout the world. While the system is open to experimentation and clever trials may afford new recipes, the major source of new formulae is simply the act of finding the item in question. As soon as Naija discovers a new food type she will intuit the ingredients required to make it, whether they are other complete foods, raw ingredients, or a combination of the two. More powerful items are usually created by combining three ingredients at a time. Such foods cannot be created out in the open ocean like simpler concoctions and must be prepared in special kitchens. This item creation system adds an extra layer of motivation for world exploration, since many rarer ingredients and recipes are hidden in secret or hard-to-reach areas.
All in all, Aquaria is a highly polished representation of what the indie scene is capable of, and, despite a few minor design flaws, particularly with the massive scale of the world, it is an incredible experience. Whether or not it warrants its near triple-A price tag is likely a debate that will rage on for months to come, but it certainly is one of the most impressive games ever to be created by a team as small as Bit-Blot’s.