Dark Energy’s Hydrophobia is an odd title, speaking primarily on its development process. After being released as an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive in the Fall of 2010, the game was met with mediocre reviews and unrelenting criticism from gamers and reviewers alike, driven mainly by the potential that lied under the surface of the game. Dark Energy was listening though and took the game back into development for the preparation of an updated version on the PC platform roughly 8 months later. Once again, the entire development house was willing to listen to the concerns of fans and is now back again with a third, and possibly final version of the initial game in a planned trilogy.
Hydrophobia Prophecy is often referred to as Hydrophobia 1.5. The core of the title is the same as was experienced with last year’s XBLA release
but many aspects of the game have been reworked and re-tooled based on criticism and feedback from the gaming community. The resulting title, currently available for both the PlayStation Network and the PC is perhaps the best version yet.
First off, you should know that if you have been here before, you know the tale of Hydrophobia Prophecy, As I stated, the core of the game has remained the same, it has just been put back in the oven for a few more months and had its “recipe” tweaked extensively. The result is an enjoyable action adventure title in the vein of Tomb Raider and Uncharted, although it never quite lives up to the standards set by either of those series.
You are Kate, a systems engineer aboard the Queen of the World, a city-sized ocean vessel. The world is filled with chaos as a result overpopulation and society has created alternate means of habitation in the form of things such as Queen of the World, which is essentially a seafaring city. Not everyone is thrilled with the current state of the world, including a fanatical terrorist group called the Malthusians. The Malthusians believe that they can solve the problem of overpopulation through mass murder, hence lowering the stress that the human population has on the planet and society as a whole. Because it wouldn’t be an entertaining story otherwise, the Malthusians sets their sights on the Queen of the World and launch an attack on the ship. Kate doesn’t want to be a hero, but circumstances plant her firmly in that role and the rest of the story unfolds from there.
As I mentioned, the game plays out similar to Tomb Raider or Uncharted. The focus is squarely set on maneuvering around your ever-changing environment and eliminating a few enemies along the way, only this time there is a single primary culprit to the change in your surroundings: water. I guess that it would be pertinent to talk about the game’s strongest aspect first and that is the use of water and the physics engine driving it in the game.
The truth is, Hydrophobia Prophecy is at its best when the water is flooding the screen. Between the incredible liquid visuals and the eerily accurate physics, the experience is engulfing both literally and figuratively. You are going to spend a lot of time in the game getting your feet wet and thankfully it is done to near perfection. The water works great from more than just a physical aspect though as its looming present at every turn provides as much of an element of danger as any of the enemies that you will face.
The water doesn’t just look nice but it “plays" nice too. It makes your movement heavier and alters the resistance of objects in the environment just as it would in real life. There was a lot of attention paid to the construction and use of water in the game and it really shows. Unfortunately, not much else in the game meets those same standards.
Nearly every other aspect of the game is average at best. Pretty much all of the character models and environmental graphics appear to be in a completely different class than the water. It is as if all of the focus went into the water and the rest was added as an after thought. The character animations in particular look rather stiff when occurring in conjunction with the silky smooth flow of the liquid. They get the job done in the long run, but it is apparent that this game is capable of so much more.
The combat is passable though the weapon variety is severely limited. There are opportunities to mix things up with various types of ammunition and the effects that have with the water, but it all becomes repetitive after a while. The gunplay is supported by a decent cover system and a new and improved melee option to take the fight up close and personal with your enemies. This is a nice change of pace from the previous iterations of the game and does help to alleviate the monotony a bit, though it all becomes all too familiar by the end of the game.
When the combat does become interesting and enjoyable is when Kate learns to harness the power of the water and use it against her enemies. This becomes a lot of fun and really mixes up the gameplay. The problem is that by the time that it is introduced into the story, the game ends. It becomes very clear that there is the intention of continuing the series in the form of the planned trilogy but that doesn’t serve players of this game well. Just when things start to become interesting, we basically get a “to be continued” notice and the game is over.
The other main gameplay element is platforming and in a game like this it needs to be well-done in order to provide a great experience. Unfortunately a finicky camera and repetitive puzzles drag down this area as well. Every task begins to feel the same after a while: find a keycard, scan the walls for clues, and move objects out of the way to proceed. Rinse and repeat. You do a lot of climbing and jumping from platforms as you scale to different areas but it never feels as responsive as it needs to be to play great. The movement feels laggy at times and I am talking about movement outside of the water, when you would think it would be quick and responsive. It is anything but and it pulls the whole experience down.
I don’t want to sound like I am doing nothing but bagging on the game, because I am not. It just hits me as disappointing considering the potential that lies beneath the surface with the engine driving the water physics. The adventure is an enjoyable one and definitely worth taking, you just won’t be itching to do it again when you are done. If you do want to get your fix of the game following the completion of the story than the game does offer you that option in the form of challenge rooms. The challenge rooms offer a nice change of pace from the standard game as they are all about combat. You face off against waves of enemies who increase in strength as time goes by. It isn’t original by ane means, but offers a nice diversion to the standard mode and will give true fans a reason to keep playing when the story is done.
Dark Energy isn’t content with just letting the game be though and is still encouraging players to give them feedback on the game. This version features the same feedback system used in the PC version which will allow you to express your concerns with different aspects of the game to the development team. It is a nice change of pace in this industry to see a developer so willing to open up and take what gamers have to say about their game to heart. They have taken on all criticism since the launch of the original game and worked tirelessly to improve the title again and again, and they show no signs of stopping now.
Also featured in this version of the game is full PlayStation Move support. You can use both the Move Wand and the navigation controller to take control of Kate, handling both her movement and aiming. They work surprisingly well although the camera does become more of an issue than before when using them. When you switch to the move setup, you lose the ability to reset the camera and that is absolutely necessary during some scenarios in the game.
It is a bit ironic that a game with such incredible attention to detail in terms of the element of water ultimately drowns in a sea of mediocrity due to poor design decisions in every other area. There is a fun game here but it isn’t anything that will stand out in the crowd of numerous releases that have launched recently. It is clear to see that Dark Waters is listening though, and they definitely have laid a great foundation at the core of the game, they just need to get all of the supporting gameplay aspects ironed out and tuned for future episodes. Thankfully, they appear to be doing just that.