Aquaria is a special game, and one of the best games released in 2007 on any platform, at any level of funding or production. It's up there with Portal, Everyday Shooter, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Mario Galaxy. It's a game that is both fun and meaningful. It is a world. It is a work of art.
First I'm going to lay down a bit of new games journalism. 2D, "closed circuit" (a term I coined when I was 12) exploration games like this have been my favorite genre for a long time, and I designed about a baker's dozen of them, on paper, when I was a pre-teen. I love 2D level design, my first love really, and this macro-scale form is like a fugue, layers building on layers. Another thing I used to feel as a kid was joyful anticipation of getting particular games for Christmas, and I stopped feeling that maybe seven years ago. Games have largely failed to grow up at the same pace as I did -- this coming from a guy whose emotional maturity has been stunted by varying degrees of substance abuse for the past five years. But Aquaria brought me back to that feeling. This time though, there's another layer -- when I was 18, I ran a failed student project, a game called Know, Metroidvania in mythical China, with martial arts, and power levels, and a setting based on Kubla Khan. There was going to be a sunny dome, caves of ice, and caverns measureless to man leading down to a sunless sea. I came to Aquaria not just as someone who wanted to believe, but as someone with a veritable sharingan of 2D level design.
Produced by Derek Yu (Art, Design) and Alec Holowka (Programming, Design), Aquaria is a game made to fill two voids; good, 2D, exploration-type games, and games that can sustain themselves purely on aesthetic. The size of the map, the number of little caves with secret treasures, the range of flora and fauna, they all come together in a breathing manner where you can forget you're playing a game called Aquaria, and simply exist its aquatic world. Similarly, the central act of the game, starting with "Open Waters", offers a choice in objectives which you are not yet aware of; you only realize late in the game that there was a pre-programmed sequence of requisite powers involved. The sense of purity that comes with that, the sense of constructing your own goal rather than chasing a carrot, is palpable. This is somehow a more touching sense of empowerment than all three of Assasin's Creed's cities put together. Some have complained that the speed at which Naija moves is too slow, making exploration a slog. But the whole point of this game, as distinct from similar titles, is that you can lean back a bit and soak in the awesome aesthetic depths, instead of always being engaged in actions and puzzles and other game-y gauntlets. It's a respite that comes like a gasp of air from beyond the veil, a threading of zen that is all too rare in games today. To quote a lesbian reflecting on a lapdance in an HBO special: it was a massage for my soul.
The game is also tight on a micro-level; controllable entirely with the mouse (but with keyboard and Xbox controller support) you find yourself dodging around and striking with ease. The distance between Naija and the cursor controls speed; double-clicking causes her to jet through the water; and leaping off embankments gives the same rush -- it's a great example of simple controls effecting deep variations. Naija can use different songs and forms by right-clicking and touching on a series of colored notes; several of the game's puzzles also play off this system. There is a recipe mini-game for combining different items into more useful items that can heal and give status benefits.
The game's story is like the game itself, sparse, taut and tersely balanced on the fence between charming and chintzy. There are nice touches, like the mother figure and the origin of the "verse", the romance dynamic and its intersection with the late-game, and the way its delivered mysteriously, without too much explication. The dialog could have used a bit of doctoring, I'd have been happy to do it, but you get a good sense of someone coming out of ferality to realize they are alone and grappling with that awareness. It could have been more understated, but it's the psychological reality of these kinds of games that Samus never seems bothered by, and Alucard dealt with by mitigating the castle as if his own childhood. If you're the kind of person who can appreciate the calm pilgrimage of the gameplay, you'll find the story a beautiful chain of rosary beads. Instead of rushing from place to place to fulfill plot points, you'll reflect on what you've learned while the awning, honeycombed level designs bleed into each other and deposit you like silt at the next major area. The audio is pretty excellent all around, and serves this aesthetic.
There's a good swath of players who are not going to take to what Aquaria is putting out, a sub-section of whom are horrible trolls. It's a sign that our medium is starting to mature when a major work of craft, arguably a work of art, can be disliked by some while deeply appreciated by others; diversity in taste is part of what art is all about. It you want linearity, intensity, and a masculine, "lean foward" kind of experience, move along. If you like love, I recommend Aquaria.