Water really is gaming’s final frontier. We’ve mastered land exploration, aerial exploration and even intergalactic exploration, but when it comes to the wet stuff here on Earth, games just seem to grind to a halt. Just mention the word water near a gamer and instantly memories of being stuck in Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple will come flooding back, along with the countless other games that have tried, and failed, to replicate being underwater. It is therefore surprising that Dark Energy Digital decided to develop a game that uses water as its key feature and titular hook, given that so many developers have struggled to make it work. Can they break the final frontier and boldly go where no game has gone before? Surprisingly the answer is yes, but only to a point.
What You Need To Know
Hydrophobia Prophecy is the latest improvement on the original Hydrophobia released last year on XBLA. The latest iteration expands upon the story as well as introducing new levels and improving the levels from the original game. The game itself is a mix of third-person shooter with an action/adventure game, with an emphasis on utilising water to your advantage thanks to the impressive HydroEngine.
Improving a Concept
Before we delve into the nuts and bolts of the game, it is worth exploring the development cycle behind Hydrophobia Prophecy which has led us to the game we have before us today. The game was initially released in 2010 for Xbox Live Arcade, where it received moderate reviews, but with some harsh criticisms of some portions of the game. In an almost unheard of move, Dark Energy Digital took the feedback from critics and fans alike and tweaked the game, releasing Hydrophobia Pure later in the year to much more favourable reviews. The latest iteration in this line of improvements is Hydrophobia Prophecy, which features almost 70% new levels, with existing levels tweaked to perfect their balance amongst other tweaks across the game. What this means is that Prophecy is the definitive version of Hydrophobia, which remarkably, is still being routinely tweaked by the development team as I write this review.
Hydrophobia Prophecy then is a refinement of a concept, and it really does show. On the face of it, Hydrophobia is a somewhat generic third-person action game, mixed in with a cover based shooter, but what is really special about this game, and what makes it so unique, is its emphasis on water and manipulating it for your needs. The game puts you in the shoes of Kate Wilson, a Systems Engineer aboard a city-sized ocean cruiser. Noticing a series of malfunctions, Kate descends to the engineering decks of the ship to perform repairs when the ship is attacked by a terrorist organisation called the Malthusians. The game sets you the simple mandate of escaping the ship before it sinks, or you drown, but along the way you discover clues as to why the Malthusians have attacked the ship in the first place and naturally, Kate decides to stop them.
Beyond the somewhat generic feel of the plot to get Kate into a situation where water can flood the corridors (it all feels very Titanic), the game plays absolutely brilliantly. The key hook of the game is the ability to have water interact realistically with the environment, and thanks to the nature of the sinking ship, there is plenty of it to play around with. Armed only with a stun gun (or severely limited on ammo later in the game), the easiest and most efficient way to tackle Malthusian soldiers is to use the water to your advantage. Levels are often designed around this, and using the cover mechanics you can strategically move your enemies close to a pane of glass behind which a full room of water lays. Simply shoot out the glass and watch as they get smashed by a wall of water. It’s an intelligent and refreshing way of tackling combat and results in some very clever puzzle situations.
The HydroEngine is pushed to its limits throughout the game, with the water effects really being a sight to behold. The aesthetic look of the water and the way light interacts with it especially, be it through flames or electrical lighting, really is far beyond anything that is currently produced, looking almost photo-realistic. The astounding water effects does create a trade-off with the rest of the graphics, which aren’t quite as superb as the water itself – they’re very good, but not as good as what the HydroEngine is putting out.
Beyond the aesthetically pleasing look of the water, its reactions to solid matter are extremely impressive, as is the way it flows naturally to create an equilibrium. Floating debris such as barrels or flaming wreckage bob around realistically, and enemies, and Kate herself, stagger under encroaching waves of H2O. Eventually though there comes a point where the room fills up with so much water that you can no longer walk, and that is where the game stands tall, but also stumbles a little.
Underwater Combat Introduces New Challenges
Either through the excessive breaking of glass or by a room just being full of water, you will often be forced into a situation where you have to swim to survive, which presents a whole new set of challenges. Combat and strategy now moves into a fully explorable 3D environment, making decision making even more difficult. Throw in there an air meter which drops quicker than you might expect and the situation becomes very tense. Thankfully, underwater combat is reasonably simple. You can ascend and descend easily, and can use floating crates as makeshift cover when under heavy fire, allowing you to outflank enemies. Electrical weapons are naturally useful here, providing perhaps the most satisfying kills when timed to perfection.
What lets the underwater gameplay down though is that there’s no sense that you really are underwater, only that everything is a bit darker and you can move up and down. Despite being in water, Kate stills moves easily and only feels a force against her when currents dictate it. The sensation of being underwater isn’t lost because of this, but it is curious how someone who is allegedly afraid of water can swim so easily and without trouble. Which brings us neatly onto the other issue – Kate, as the game’s title suggests, is afraid of water. This is never made entirely clear throughout the game, and despite her initial reservations she will fearlessly dive into the water, with no questions asked for the remainder of the game.
Plot Could Do With More Screen-Time
Kate’s interactions with the crew, particularly her radio guide Scoot, are also kept to a minimum, and this really is an area that needs improving. A little more backstory or maybe some chatter between them would have added a lot to the game as it moved forward, especially if they had focussed more on Kate’s hydrophobia. Keeping dialogue to a minimum does keep the game flowing, but it comes at a cost of confusion to players trying to keep up with the story; and that’s unfortunate as it does potentially have a lot of depth to it. Thankfully, the audio is well voiced and humorous which will instantly endear the characters to you, with Kate being particularly well voiced throughout. Elsewhere, the ship makes the standard creaking noises you would expect, and to keep with the lonely theme, the game is devoid of any major backing music, adding a nice air of mystery to the setting.
MAVI and Hydro Kinetic Powers
To challenge the player further, a scanning tool known as the MAVI is introduced early on. This acts as a scanner much like in Metroid Prime, and can also be used to hack cameras and terminals. The hacking ability leads to some clever puzzles where you can open doors remotely, but all too often you need to use the MAVI to find a cipher written on the wall in ink only it can see. It’s a laborious process to complete after the first 3 or 4 times of doing it, and with no real explanation given it seems like an artificial extension of the game.
The final big gameplay hook are the Hydro Kinetic powers that are bestowed upon Kate somewhat randomly towards the end of the game. These allow Kate to manipulate water with her hand (think The Force), creating towers of water and hurling them at enemies. In principle this is a great idea, and it works really well, but on a keyboard, which lacks any sort of analogue control, you are left with either a big tower, or no tower at all. The powers are also criminally under-used, only really being needed in the final boss battle, which on its own is a shockingly abrupt end to the game which doesn’t really fit in. It’s a shame that the powers aren’t used more, with their only other use being in the brief high score Challenge Room post-game, as they are great fun while you get a chance to use them and have the potential to create unique puzzles, much like Portal did with the Portal gun.
Hydrophobia Prophecy is a game that shatters all expectations of how games can be developed. Not only does it show that developers can listen to fans and improve upon things, it also shows that water as a medium for gameplay can be conquered. The game does have some problems in puzzle design and a repetitive use of the MAVI scanner, but overall it takes the water theme and makes it its own. From the clever use of water to tackle enemies to the criminally under-used Hydro Kinetic powers, Hydrophobia Prophecy is bursting with ideas, and I can’t wait to see where Dark Energy Digital take these ideas next.
Review copy of the game purchased on Steam
Game completed ~5 hours