Indie Game of the Week 206: The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human

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Mento

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It's a day with a Y in it, so that means we're covering another explormer on Indie Game of the Week! To be specific, it's a rare case of an underwater explormer - Aquaria and Song of the Deep being the only other examples that come to mind - and one that balances the grimness of a watery post-apocalyptic Earth with the natural beauty of a vast sub-aquatic ecosystem. The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human sees an intrepid spaceship explore a mysterious anomaly that opens up close to Earth, disappearing into its event horizon for an untold number of years (it's implied to be tens of thousands) before being unceremoniously spat back out. They had the presence of mind to give this ship a submarine function, which turns out to be vital because the entire Earth is now entirely covered by ocean with no sign of intelligent life remaining. The narrative thrust of the game, then, is to figure out what happened in those intervening years and where everyone went.

You maniacs! You... submerged it? Damn you all to hell!
You maniacs! You... submerged it? Damn you all to hell!

Like other aquatic explormers, while there's a distinct of platforming (and I realise this is one case where my neologism for this genre does not apply) you still have the same dynamic of needing power-ups to progress past certain barriers. It doesn't take long to reach a crossroads hub of sorts where you can split off into three distinct zones, and from those a few other places, but further exploration in each zone requires you to procure the right upgrades first: a torpedo to clear out paths blocked by rockfall, for instance, or a chainsaw to cut through the surprisingly sturdy kelp. Enemy encounters only ever come in two forms: stationary hazards which you can only ever stun briefly, if that, and the boss fights that make up the majority of the game's action sequences. The boss fights hit the right balance of challenging and inventive, invariably requiring whichever weapon-based power-up was the last one you acquired (or, in a few cases, an airdash-like thrust to evade harm). Your ship restores hull integrity over time, and you can upgrade this aspect until you're able to recover from any damage within seconds, but in many cases the greatest danger is presented by getting trapped by these colossal foes or pushed into a wall hazard (like giant clams) which in both cases results in instant death.

The stretches between bosses are comparatively sedate: the game is big on atmosphere, playing around with the bright colors of coral reefs one moment and in the next sinking into the darkest depths where anything might be lying in wait, and in many areas you can see the decaying structures of human civilization and messages left behind by those who once lived there for indirect hints as to what may have occurred. The game's definitely a treat for marine biologists of any stripe, though perhaps not so much for those who suffer from thalassophobia; the game has some real horrors to throw at you, especially in the regions corrupted by manmade pollutants. That a boss fight might start at any time (though seeing the game auto-save as you pass through an antechamber is usually a good hint) keeps the tension moderately high throughout, but for the most part your exploration of the deep will be as a passive observer picking your way past the debris while looking for answers.

I'm not sure what's so tranquil about a 12,000 ton octopus that keeps throwing shit at me. Maybe I woke it up?
I'm not sure what's so tranquil about a 12,000 ton octopus that keeps throwing shit at me. Maybe I woke it up?

On the whole, Aquatic Adventure is a bit on the thin side and largely coasts on its ambience, though I still enjoyed my time with it. All I really ask out of this genre are some fulfilling exploration, entertaining boss fights, and enough quality-of-life enhancements to make it feel like the developers respect the player's time, and this game checks all those boxes. As well as a fast travel system, the very last upgrade you find on the critical path tells you where all the other ones are in case you felt like backtracking for them, and I always appreciate that as an OCD 100% completion type guy who'd rather not look up revealing documents online if they can help it (well, at least not the video game walkthrough type). The game's sense of scale makes every area impressive, if sometimes a bit too expansive for their own good if you're determined to scan each region top to bottom for upgrades, and even if the central mystery was a little underwhelming I liked the incidental way most of the lore was delivered: it felt much like Souls where you really have to go out of your way for every morsel of backstory, and even the dumbest-looking boss is given an elegiac post-mortem by the protagonist's notes. There's only so many directions you can take a "mysteries of the deep" narrative in a post-Jules Verne, post-Ecco the Dolphin world so I don't envy developers hoping to find a new edge. Best you can do is point every aspect of your presentation towards emphasizing just how alien and dangerous and beautiful the world beneath the waves can be; nail that vibe and you're most of the way there.

Rating: 4 out of 5. (NB: Received as part of the Itch.io Racial Justice and Equality bundle.)

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