Hydrophobia – Final Review

Hydrophobia’s central narrative is poorly presented and poorly developed, showing a pervasive sense of directionlessness, aimlessness, with a poverty of ambition. In the opening, the central environment – The Queen of the World, a sprawling ship-city with a population of millions – is subject to a damning attack, the assailants unknown though obviously threatening, menacing. Combatting these attackers, discovering what precisely is their guiding motivation, would seemingly lend to the narrative a sharp sense of urgency, though it is difficult to care for or identify with any of the oppressed, assaulted masses, who are completely nonexistent, having no presence in the game world – there is only the player character, Kate, a handful of secondary characters, and then the central antagonists, themselves, a group characterized by further failings, in that their leader and commandant is not revealed until the narrative’s conclusion. This absence of a tangible larger antagonist is a monumental failing, greatly contributing to the mentioned directionlessness. Gradually, some information is communicated to the player – these antagonists, the Malthusians, have attacked the ship-city in efforts to curb population growth, the societal unsustainability which inevitably results from excessive populations. Seemingly, their intentions are sound ones; the struggling masses can derive great benefit from population restraint. But this point is never developed, appearing largely in the introductory cutscene and nowhere else; just as it is difficult to identify with the ship-city’s citizens, it is similarly difficult to despise the antagonists, because they are so vaguely implemented, showing no growth, the absence of any figurehead, again, contributing to that stalling of player engagement.

If this leader were present from the first, if she asserted her presence and engaged in repeated acts of villainy, narrative failings could easily be rectified. Instead, the antagonists inspire indifference, even as their complex motivations would seemingly points towards considerable player interest. These narrative failings are only exacerbated by the dull unlikability of the player character, Kate, completely devoid of any real personality. In theory, this design decision has potential, permitting the player to project themselves upon the player character; blank slates can be positive, engrossing, and given the soundness of this approach, it has been adopted countless times over, often to massive success; these successes remain elusive within Hydrophobia, Kate being a bore, boasting disappointing voice acting and an uninspired, unoriginal character modelling. For every word Kate speaks, the central secondary character, Scoot, utters five, greatly dominating the narrative and contributing to its destruction; whereas Kate’s voice acting is merely bland, his voice acting is abysmal, cliched and exaggerated, while the precise content of his speech is occasionally groan-inducing, the game’s writing typically of a poorer sort. The banter between the pair is sometimes amusing, almost heartfelt, which does inject some life into the narrative, and the fierceness of their bonds is easily discernible, but the presence of this sincerity only makes more painful the narrative and writing failures. A disastrous ending further complicates matters: a massive, unresolved cliffhanger is in place, a cliffhanger which will forever remain unresolved. Very rarely do I advocate for increased game length; short experiences can be great experiences, actually tend to be great ones – this is observable in countless indie games of similar budgets. But here, if the experience were extended by three or four hours, the narrative would see considerable improvement; resolution, at least of a somewhat fuller sort, would be achieved. In the concluding moments, the female, ultimate antagonist has finally been introduced, while a sense of urgency is suddenly realized, a sense of excitement emerging now that the antagonist can be combatted, challenged, and ultimately deposed – that is how a traditional narrative would progress. Instead, she is introduced, a cutscene plays, and then the game simply ends, abruptly, marking the experience as unfulfilling, unsatisfying; additional length could, potentially, result in fulfillment; tragedy abounds.  

In its environmental design, further missteps are made, attributable largely to the considerable environmental repetition, especially frustrating when considering the creative potentials attached to a ship-city, which could be novel, singularly unique – the concept here is fascinating, though those ample potentials are squandered. The repetitive nature of these environments only cuts down on the joys of exploration, though opportunities for exploration are scarce anyway – the game shows hyperlinearity, with only a few branching pathways here and there; player freedom is lacking, as the same dull corridors are navigated and renavigated, the environments of the first act functionally the same as the environments in the second. In the third act, admittedly, signs of greatness do show themselves, as the player leaves behind the cramped corridors for the open air, and here the developers do display their great creativity. But then there is the abrupt conclusion, and this brief exposure to creativity only makes the player hunger for a more protracted experience. But almost the entire title transpires within the confines of the ship-city’s hull, where air and sunlight are completely absent. Some striking color vibrancy has a presence, with crisp blue pipes which are reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge’s aesthetics, though these displays of creativity are countered and lessened by sometimes poor technical performance and technical limitations, with poor texture quality and sometimes massive dips in frame-rate.  Aesthetically, the game’s greatest innovation is related to its water effects, which can, some ten years on, be surprisingly beautiful, the water effects dynamic and reactionary; they feel energetic, vacillating between a churning intensity and a peaceful tranquility, as the situation dictates. In many instances throughout the narrative, entire sections of the hull are flooded in water, reflecting the full extent of the Malthusian’s destruction; water is central to the entire experience. Beyond this innovation, a secondary failing arises to exacerbate the failings of environmental repetition: the game is derivative, tightly clinging to the tropes of the science-fiction genre; environmental creativity and whimsicality are mostly lacking; the ship looks like a ship, being an exact replication of reality rather than a clever, inspired distortion. A floating, staggeringly large city, adrift within the vast oceans, is primed for such reality distortions, for trope subversions; and yet, tropes are fiercely clung to. While the absence of creative distortion is a marker of frustration, a sharp sense of believability is at least achieved here – while the game unfolds sometime into the future, all of the technologies on display (most notably a scanner which serves a critical gameplay function) are conceivably achievable, grounded; the game rejects technological exaggeration or absurdity for relative realism. Foundationally, then, the environmental design should be incredibly successful, impactful; The Queen of the World’s design is novel and innovative, though that innovation is stifled by restrictive design decisions, the game seemingly afraid of openness, the developers failing to realize stale environments mean a stale experience, while lifelessness erodes player immersion, barely maintained by the atmospheric, imaginative and realistic water effects, water rendering.

Hydrophobia’s gameplay is inconsistent, meeting with some successes, successes which are greatly overshadowed and outnumbered by failures. The game is largely a traditional fusion of the platformer and third-person shooter genres, a fusion which is actually quite commonplace. The platforming can be immensely enjoyable, even as the animation quality is occasionally janky, reflective of the game’s indie status. But scaling some elevator shaft as the waters below rise ever higher is inherently exhilarating, jankiness or no. Whenever platforming is minimized, however, whenever all-out combat dominates the experience, considerable cracks begin to show, the game again suffering from its sheer genericness. Seizing upon the mechanics introduced and perfected in the Gears of War series, almost every object in the environment can be employed as cover, seemingly permitting great tactical freedoms. Cover is indeed important to combat success, encouraging a more cautious, plodding approach, though the shooting systems which supplement the cover systems are largely uninspired. Tragically, this combat grows increasingly frequent as the narrative progresses, this frequency resulting in monotony, destroying whatever potential resonances combat may possess, making one yearn for the return of more involved platforming sequences. Strangely, a rudimentary stealth system is implemented, though opportunities for its effective utilization are nonexistent, in that the player can never know of enemy locations beforehand, can never know when to enter into the crouched stance; round some corner or pass through some threshold, and the enemies will be waiting, opening gunfire on the instant; the inclusion of this system, then, is essentially meaningless. But all is not dismal, combat successes attributable to an almost survival-horror gameplay dimension. Very early on in the campaign, Kate stumbles upon a pistol, which is the sole weapon ever wielded. In theory, this too would lead to tedium – here is no weapon diversity, and seemingly no options for experimentation. In actuality, experimentation persists, in that manifold different ammunition types are present, which help to offset potential tedium. Upon the weapon’s acquisition, the sole accessible ammunition type is a shock-charge of sorts, which must be charged before firing and which causes struck enemies to collapse upon impact, making them vulnerable for follow-up shots, necessary when considering they do not expire from one single shot. Its infinite capacity means it will often be relied upon, though it is highly inefficient. This inefficiency is offset by the immense killing efficiency of the other ammunition types. Amongst these types are rapid-fire pistol rounds, pistol rounds of immense power but slow fire-rate, and rounds which can be fired and then detonated at will, having great power and even a small blast radius, capable of dispatching multiple foes in they are within close proximity. Having access to these ammunition types serves a sharp role of empowerment, contrasting with the weakness attached to the shock rounds. But ammunition for these alternate firing modes is extremely scarce, meaning the player must measure every shot, must not shoot mindlessly or recklessly. It is a very compelling component, which elevates the joys of combat even as it is a very standard, unoriginal cover shooter. Ammunition scarcity, then, creates tension, the needs for tactics.    

Besides its inherent beauty and dynamism, water serves a critical gameplay focus, and manipulating water, measuring its flow, is central to the entire experience. Given its abundance, it follows that considerable time will be spent wading through it, swimming through it. But this presents a problem: while the swimming controls feature a dedicated button for ascending, a dedicated button for descending, movement can be occasionally clunky, Kate not controlling as the player might intend her to; a fair degree of unpredictability is present. Cleverly, too, the developers made the decision to give her finite breathing capabilities. Given this finiteness, and the great deal of time spent underwater, potentials for frustration are present: dawdle about for too long, and Kate will die from lack of oxygen. In practice, this gameplay mechanics means that tension and uneasiness are preserved, and sometimes the player will have to adjust their pathing in consequence; if the desired destination is some distance away, the player may be prompted to retreat to an earlier point, to replenish the breath meter, and then to resume progress; a strange sort of enjoyability accompanies this breath management. Many developers might provide the player character with a breathing apparatus or some other such contrivance to increase accessibility, and the rejection of this inclusion was a bold, wise one, instilling within water a certain threatening component. Interacting with this water, too, can have immense effects upon the environment, one repeated obstacle stemming from electricity, electrical charges. Reflecting the Malthusian’s destruction, cables and other such objects have been partially severed from their source, meaning nearby water is electrified. Shooting the chords, breaking the link, becomes a necessity for further progress, the dangerous made explorable. Electricity serves another gameplay function, too, in that generators and other objects can be targeted, and, once shot at, the objects release a discharge, which can be used to stun or outright kill enemies in the immediate area; they will be targeted often, and opportunities for this action are immense, in that underwater combat occasionally emerges. This is very compelling, tense. In so many games, if an enemy falls into water they will die outright, or at least be pacified. Not so here, as enemies can thrive in water, maintain their threatening attributes, and swimming around them, attempting to avoid their gunfire while simultaneously targeting them is quite frenetic and engaging, though the balancing here is perfect, frustration largely removed as great cheapness is absent.

At its heart, Hydrophobia is a mostly lifeless experience, only rarely engaging the player, the engagement which does exist stemming largely from the gameplay, with its survival horror aspects, compensating somewhat for the disappointing narrative, abounding in potential just as the environments abound in potential. A lack of narrative ambition is not inherently a failing, meaning that the developers will never overreach. So it is here, the game’s narrative being an overall highly focused sort. But reflecting the dearth of ambition, the sole two characters of any note, though, Kate and Scoot, never show any character development or growth, instead being completely static characters. A ship-city, too, could be conveyed spectacularly, whimsically; the developers could attempt to seize upon the grandeur, the apparent majesty of that environment, though they fail to do so, the vast majority of the narrative unfolding far removed from that majesty, a majesty observable only in the introductory cutscene and in the narrative’s concluding moments. Gameplay is characterized alternately by innovation and iteration, the former stemming from the trademark water effects, which are frequently dazzling, rendered carefully and painstakingly. Iteration stems from the gunplay, the heavy reliance upon the tired tropes of the third-person shooter genre. But while these mechanics cannot match those found in Gears of War or any of the litany of other third-person shooters, the survival horror elements result in relative uniqueness, in that in so many other games of the genre, ammunition is in ample supply, which directly devalues the need for tactics. Cleverly, too, is the selective way these survival horror elements are implemented, implemented exclusively within the gameplay, in that the environments themselves are devoid of any horrific, frightful aspects, deliberately so. Still, even with ammunition management and tactical considerations, it is the same nameless enemies which are being shot at, the same series of corridors which are explored, their claustrophobia meaning differing gameplay experiences are slight; long-range engagements are essentially nonexistent, combat almost exclusively occurring in confined spaces, though the clever underwater combat compensates for this repetition. The vacillation between quiet / loud – observable in the alternation between platforming and combat – does vary up the pacing, though the increasing dominance of combat in the late game upsets that diversity somewhat. Elaborate puzzle-solving is absent, the game instead relying upon one single puzzle design, which is required for completion some twenty times throughout the narrative, never varied in any considerable fashion, while it is often completable in no more than twenty or thirty seconds each instance. The experience is a slight one, the narrative broken into three distinct acts, which can collectively be completed in roughly four or five hours; the barrier to entry is low, as is the investment in time, and while the game often meets with failure in design and in implementation, it is almost enigmatically endearing, these endearing attributes almost overriding failures – a fair degree of heart is present here; a fair degree of charm is present here. The fact that this heart and charm will never be continued, as the developers clearly intended, is an immensely tragic occurrence.

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