This is what you show to someone who doubts games can be art.
While big name developers constantly push hyped up releases such as Mass Effect, Halo 3, Super Mario Galaxy, and Call of Duty 4, there's always the little developer that could, bringing out an unnoticed gem, one that happens to be better and more polished than some big name releases. In this case, the little developer that could is Bit Blot, and the gem is Aquaria, a game that can best be described as Ecco the Dolphin x Castlevania/Metroid. It's one of those games that prove games can be art, and shows that no matter how big your development team, you can put out a polished, high quality product...
... and in Aquaria's case, that's a grand total of two people. Yes, two people made this masterpiece of a game, but unless you did a quick bit of research, you never would have guessed. Tons of work clearly went into this game. It was in development for over two years, one person working on the art, and the other doing the music, coding, and design of the game, and frankly, it's quite amazing to see what these two people put out.
Aquaria is about Naija, an underwater creature who is in search of her family. She travels the massive ocean world of Aquaria, from dark caves and ancient ruins, to beautiful underwater paradises. Aquaria has a force that runs through it, the Verse, a rythmic pulse that be called something like the heartbeat of the waters. By singing, Naija can manipulate the Verse and change the waters around her, gain new abilities, and change forms. Along your adventure, you'll meet a number of characters who help to move the surprisingly good and engaging story along. There are a few good twists along the way, and the dialogue is well written.
As stated earlier, Aquaria can best be described as a cross between Ecco the Dolphin and Castlevania/Metroid. You'll swim through an absolutely massive underwater world with many diverse, and beautiful looking underwater environments. You'll come into contact with many different creatures, and explore the many different areas of the world of Aquaria. The same open ended "Metroidvania" style gameplay is present here. You'll sometimes find yourself at a point you can't pass, only to find some sort of ability or form later on in the game, and then return to that one spot, able to continue on and explore new waters, although compared to Metroid and Castlevania, these moments don't really happen all too often, and more or less you're able to explore much of the world from the start, once you're done with the small tutorial.
Moving around the world of Aquaria is as simple as clicking where you want to go. Hold down the mouse button, and Naija will swim, while you move a cursor around the screen and Naija will go there. In fact, the entire game is controlled by the mouse. You'll use the left button to move around, the middle button to look around, and the right button to use each of Naija's powers, or interact with plants and other sea-dwellers. The mouse only control-scheme works great, and navigation around Aquaria can be fun all in itself. The game also has the support for keyboard + mouse, and the Xbox 360 controller. Sometimes, it's just fun to swim around and do nothing, which is helped by the great level design and great looking areas.
A small problem, however, is that sometimes you'll find yourself lost, and not know what to do. Sometimes, you'll be fighting a boss, but you'll also be fighting yourself, trying to figure out how in the world you actually hurt the damn thing. Also, again, the world is huge, which means a few more save points could have been nice.
Two of the main mechanics in the game are singing and cooking. Certain plants you'll encounter are a certain colour. Singing the right note near them will cause them to release a nice item for you. Not unlike the Legend of Zelda series, you'll also learn different songs as you play through your adventure. These songs either do simple things like give you a barrier, but the big thing here is that you'll earn different forms, and by singing, you can transform into these forms. The forms will give you the ability to attack, swim through strong current, avoid danger from certain foes, squeeze through small spaces, and more. You'll have to switch through the various forms to be able to pass some of the games challenges, such as fighting enemies, or solving puzzles, and to find new and secret areas in Aquaria. Some of the forms seem like they could have been a simple spell though, such as Light, which simply let's you see in the darkness, minus the abilities you have in your normal form.
Along your adventure, you'll collect different ingredients, weather it be by interacting with plant's and animals, or by defeating enemies. You can use these ingredients to cook different dishes, will will usually raise various things such as health, speed, or damage, and others that give you new abilities. You can learn new dishes by collecting them, or randomly cooking ingredients and hoping you get something out of it. Most dishes can be cooked anywhere, and require only two ingredients, while others require you to head to a kitchen, and use more ingredients.
The main adventure is pretty long. You're looking at about a 12 hour game, which is if you don't explore the entire world and see what the rest of Aquaria has to offer. You can gain new abilities to help you on your quest, get objects to decorate your home, find recipes and ingredients, get pets to help you in fights, and more. Some things you find be entering certain areas of Aquaria will also unlock more ending cutscenes, providing more incentive to explore the vast underwater world. All of these things can be done by swimming through the massive world, bigger than anything you've seen in a Metroid or Castlevania game.
If that isn't enough, the game has a mode that allows you to create your own levels. You can place plants, creatures, and more across your levels, save them, and play them. The fact that it's fun just to swim around the beautiful world of Aquaria makes me see a lot of people wasting time with this. For those who want to go the extra step, you can make mods for the games. Title screens, enemies, entire levels, tilesets, animation, graphics, sound, music, and more. You can completely customize the game to your liking, and even download mods and install them to try out ones made by other people. I myself haven't done anything with modding because I don't know much is anything at all about it, but those who are willing to invest some time here have a promising time waster.
All of this is made all the better thanks to some excellent looking visuals. The underwater world is brought to life thanks to some well done, well animated 2D. The creatures of Aquaria are also plentiful and diverse, all the plants, animals, characters, and enemies you'll encounter are animated well, and look great. The diversity of the underwater areas are also great. Each area of Aquaria has a distinct theme to it, and the backgrounds and colours are all usually nice and colourful. Little visual touches such as bubbles, current, and the plants flowing steadily in the water make things all the nicer.
The excellent visuals are backed by a superb soundtrack. The music is nice and relaxed, and fits the whole underwater theme of the game excellently. The game contains over 50 tracks, and all are pleasant to listen to, and some are simply beautiful. In other words, I want a soundtrack. The game's story is also told through Naija's point of view, by means off well acted voice overs. Never will you think the voice acting is bad or out of place.
It's amazing to what Bit Blot has done here. This two man development team has truly put out something special. This is the kind of game that could easily be a success on downloadable game service such as Xbox Live Arcade or WiiWare. The fact that they say sales are going well for an Indie game, that they think they'll be able to continue developing games, and that they have some new ideas, only make me more excited for the next project that could come out of this two man team.