Review: Aquaria

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A lot of games rely on the storytelling crutch of amnesia, despite few using it well. It’s an easy and useful way to write off having to explain everything to the player through their character but it can make wrapping up the story far more troublesome in the end. Aquaria starts you out in just this way, with an amnesiac protagonist coming to learn about herself and her world. What I didn’t expect was how effectively the game could surprise me, moreso than it did its own character. If you want the full experience of discovering Aquaria’s world yourself, stop reading right now and get it. I assure you it’s worth it.

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You take on the role of Naija, a pleasant little fish lady all alone in her corner of the ocean for reasons even she does not know. An auspicious event causes strange memories to come flooding back to her, starting her on an epic journey through the seas of Aquaria. I won’t spoil what she finds but lost civilizations and mystical enigmas are definitely in the cards, along with a boatload of clever powers. There are monsters to battle, beings to befriend, and no end of secrets to uncover in your quest.

When I say “epic” I’m not just overusing the word. Aquaria is built like a metroidvania, with a wide-open map gated by the many powers you’ll gain as you progress. But just like the actual oceans, this map is absolutely enormous, almost prohibitively so. Each region of the waters is a network of maps that stretch far and wide, featuring undersea caverns, canyons, islands, peaks, and clefts. Hidden in these vast locations are items to scrounge up, enemies to battle, and passages into the many places you need to explore to get anywhere in this game. And the powers you gain to access these places are dramatic and transformative, utilized through a clever musical mechanic where you sing songs Ocarina of Time-style.

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With all this facing me as I took my first steps (strokes?), I was fairly lost in Aquaria for the first hour or two. The starting region is decent about leading you to your first few powers but once you move on from there the ocean appears just that, an endless ocean of secrets and possibilities. Aquaria feels pretty aimless most of the time because of this and also because the story is told in brief snippets of monologue from Naija, who doesn’t know a damn thing more about what’s going on than you do. Finding your next power to proceed is going to take a lot of wandering and exploring and experimenting and backtracking, and that means a fair bit of patience if traversing the world doesn’t grab you.

I wager it will grab you, though, thanks to the wonderful attention to details here. Naija’s world comes alive with all kinds of colorful sea creatures, from tiny anemones to massive sea stars, harmless guppies to deadly nautiluses. Despite the slow and peaceful start to the game there are a ton of enemies to battle, with some areas needing to be cleared of hostiles before you can effectively proceed. You do get some very cool powers to deal with them, of course, and those powers can be used to turn up ingredients for the game’s cooking system (which makes helpful healing and buff items) or artifacts (for decorating your lovely sea home).

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The graphics propping all this up are simple but charming and have plenty of detail where they need them most. The sound design, though, my God this game has a magnificent soundtrack. Once you get out into the world you’re sure to come across a region you never want to leave because of how enthralling its theme is. And while there aren’t as many effects as you might expect, the ones there are do a lot to maintain the atmosphere of the deep seas. There’s so much to see and do in Aquaria, including a wealth of unexpected elements I haven’t even touched on, that you’re sure to find something to hook you.

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