How Metroidvania is it? High Fit. The game takes place underwater, so traditional platforming isn't a thing, and the argument could be made that ability gating isn't super strong, but otherwise Aquaria checks all of the Metroidvania boxes quite nicely.
Primary Challenge: Exploration Focus
Time to beat: ~10 hours
Review Info: Aquaria was played using the Windows PC (Steam) version.
Buy Aquaria if you like…
- Pure Discovery
- Underwater Locales
- Collecting Decorations
- Cooking Mechanics
- Beautiful Music
▼ Review continues below ▼
The ocean has historically been one of the most intriguing places of mystery on our planet. The vast deep could hold countless wonders. It’s inspiring, and sometimes the ocean is even used as as the metaphoric origin of all life. What a perfect setting for a discovery-focused Metroidvania game! Aquaria is sort of like a twisted coming of age story intermixed with existentialism, and its presented in a way that could only work in the video game medium. While the primary story points are given through narrated cutscenes, the journey toward discovering them is an integral part of the overall message. Aquaria inspired me, but this is something the game only has the potential to do, since Aquaria may fall just short of amazing for some players thanks to unusual design decisions. Nevertheless, on the off-chance that you too might capture the vision Aquaria attempts to convey, the effort will doubtlessly be worth it.
Our protagonist Naija had lived in the ocean for a seemingly endless amount of time, behaving like she was just one of the animals. She tells us about a force in the universe she calls “the verse” – a power that seems to provide life and support which had allowed her to simply live. It was an innocent life, until a small thing turns her world upside-down. A hint of what lies beyond the edges of her home sparks a burning curiosity that she constantly says she cannot resist. In reality that’s because we the player are forcing her into it anyway, but that’s part of the genius of this setup. Aquaria catches us with its hook and teases us at every turn with something more just around the corner.
Simply exploring and immersing yourself in the ocean is the key appeal of Aquaria. Like Naija, the player has no knowledge of the outside world, so simply thrusting yourself into it is the only way to unveil what lies beyond. There are breadcrumbs to lead you along of course, just enough to keep it interesting. Metroidvania tropes are the main means of telling you where to go next. You will find obstacles blocking your path that new powers will obviously remove. For the most part though, anywhere you go you usually go there “because you can”, and not because the game tells you to. Naija receives visions of future potentials on occasion, but exploring the ocean is up to you. Similarly, the world’s lore is vague enough that gaps must also be filled in by your imagination.
The general atmosphere of Aquaria is amplified by a top notch soundtrack. Swimming around the ocean creates strong feelings of adventure as the melodies swell. Forbidden passages play tunes that drum up the tension, but also urge you to press forward. Everything in the presentation reinforces the loneliness Naija suddenly feels at the beginning of the game, but the triumph of the music’s movements also denote a sense of progression toward the truth.
Unlike some other Metroidvania games, exploration isn’t all about power progression. You do find new tools for removing or subverting obstacles, and you can find permanent upgrades to your health, but the main thing you’ll find outside of the critical path is more world building. You will find treasures you can bring back to your home, new costumes to wear, or new memories to discover more about Naija’s past. Occasionally these things might give a stat boost, but not always. The story, and the exploration it takes to get there, is what Aquaria is all about, and how much value you place in these aspects is critical to how much you can enjoy this game.
Besides that narrative discovery, the other aspects of Aquaria’s gameplay are much less intriguing. Every once in a while you’ll come across a puzzle that introduces a never-before used mechanic, so you’ll likely be stumped for the wrong reasons. Part of what you discover as you explore are ingredients for cooking up potions and other temporary boosts to help you along your way. The idea of crafting to be more successful meshes well with the Aquaria’s world-focused approach, but the cooking menu is cumbersome and pace breaking when you actually have to use the items you make during a combat section. That combat however is the hardest aspect of Aquaria to recommend.
Because you can move in any direction, it’s no surprise that Aquaria uses a twin-stick shooter style of combat for most of the game. Aquaria was also definitely designed around the keyboard and mouse. You can use a controller, which I did for a little while, but it’s just awkward moving the mouse cursor around with an analog stick. Furthermore using the keyboard gives you access to shortcut keys that are practically essential for late game encounters as you need to juggle powers more frequently. Being designed for the keyboard does mean that Naija is restricted to only 8 directions of movement, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the game felt like it was always designed around it.
Bullet hell style games have used 8 directional movement before, but what makes bullet hell games work are their predictable patterns and the small hurtbox of the main character. Naija’s long and slender body shifts vertically or horizontally depending on which direction you’re moving so dodging attacks gets more clunky the more complex the patterns become. To make matters worse so many enemies attack with completely random patterns. There are some bosses that are seemingly impossible to dodge, unless you chow down on speed buff items you had to meticulously cook up previous to the fight. These buffs only last 15-45 seconds depending on the grade you craft, however, so in order to rely on them you sort of already have to have the boss’ pattern memorized anyway. Like some other Metroidvania games with less than desirable combat mechanics, if you’re diligent with your exploration, then all of the items you’ve gathered can help you cheese the fight. The temporary nature of these items however mean every item used represents a considerable amount of work to get back to where you were in preparation for the next challenge. Combat isn’t so difficult that I would consider it a game killer, but it was a significant detractor for me, and it may be a sticking point for many players.
The game wouldn’t be better if the combat was simply removed however, since it feeds into the all-important narrative. Naija struggling against the odds is crucial to the overall message, it would just be nice if that struggle was actually fun. The final dungeon was very fatiguing, and even the final boss felt like it was much longer than it should have been. If Aquaria was remade with a more intuitive UI and either revamped controls or enemy design, I’d be enticed to hang it up in the hall of fame with other masterpieces. Given the circumstances around its key development partners though that prospect is about as likely as Aquaria getting an also much-deserved sequel. If you can look beyond the combat, though, the Aquaria we have is in many ways a masterpiece nevertheless.
There’s no wonder why Aquaria has received rewards and a cult following over the years. There’s something unique and magical about the adventure it provides, and its story infused in me at least a delicious sense of wonder. I’ve intentionally left out a lot of details because I think this is one of those titles that is best if you go into it as blind as possible. If you can get past its rougher edges from a gameplay standpoint, there’s a good chance Aquaria will bind itself to your memory.
While the free-aiming combat is ambitious, awkward controls and conflicting enemy design makes combat encounters more frustrating than fun.
You swim, so platforming is very rare. Obstacles you need to dodge aren't particularly dangerous unless you're actively being attacked.
Immersing yourself in Aquaria's world is its strongest feature. You can collect various treasures and optional story beats, but most of all in order to progress the game you must discover.
True puzzles aren't particularly common, but the ones you will find range from completely obtuse to fairly easy to figure out, with not much in-between.
The story provides an intriguing mystery and a wistful look at the adventures you have, which may have a deeper meaning for you.
Aquaria's ''marionette'' style graphics are definitely showing their age, but the general style of the game's art is timeless.
The melodies of Aquaria are catchy and beautiful. The only thing that would make the music better is if it was fully orchestrated or made with more modern sound tools.
At a certain point in the game you can do some things in any order you choose, providing some opportunity to change up subsequent playthroughs.
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