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Review: Aquaria





Table of Contents

Quick Information

Rating: Pretty Fun
Gore & Brutality Magic Sex Civility Religion
2 1 1 3 3
Additional Notes
Linux version available!Soundtrack available!
Age Rating Suitable for teenagers
License: Commercial
System used: Martha
Available From: Steam
Aquaria's Homepage
Soundtrack: On Bandcamp

Game Screenshots


A peaceful day in Naija's home waters


Some fleshy growths in Mithalis


Naija (in Nature form) and Li exploring the Kelp Forest

General Notes

You don't see as many Metroidvania games on the PC as I would like, and I'd strongly recommend Aquaria to anyone that enjoys this genre.

Since most of the game take place underwater, there are things to see in all directions. However, it also means that threats can come from anywhere around you. Exploring is therefore a risky venture, but it's a rewarding one as there's a lot of things to see and encounter in this underwater world.

Unfortunately, this game touches on some pretty dark subject matter, including blasphemy and cannibalism, making it unsuitable for children.

Story Summary

In the underwater world of Aquaria, a magical song known as the Verse runs through and touches everything. In the calmer waters, an innocent young mermaid can be found spending her days quietly thinking and dreaming. Named Naija, she can interact with the Verse by singing special songs that harmonize with its melody. These songs allow her to manipulate the Verse and in turn, the world around her.

On day her daydreaming was interrupted by a brief encounter with a strange robed figure. Curious, Naija followed after the visitor, beginning a journey that would cause her to learn many previously hidden things about the world outside the small area she had called home. As she uncovers Aquaria's past, she will discover many treasures, remains of old civilizations, and a warning about a grave threat to her own future.

Gameplay Summary

Although Aquaria is not a platformer, it's still a fairly typical Metroidvania game. In order to progress, you'll need to explore as much of the area as you can to find new powers and songs. These will give you new ways to interact with the environment; for example, a song Naija will learn early on gives her the power to levitate and move large boulders. Each new ability will open up more of the world, so if you're stuck, you simply need to find the next ability.

Controlling Naija is very intuitive, as the standard WASD scheme controls where she swims while the mouse handles things like targeting her abilities or picking which notes she's singing. Alternatively, the mouse can also be used to navigate, though I found this to be less than ideal.

Pros

Impressive graphics and soundtrack
Everything in Aquaria is alive. All of the environments are teeming with fish and other marine life. In fact, each area has many unique creatures living there. Some of the animals inhabit more than one part of the world, and they frequently take on attributes of the local area. The sea horses are an excellent example of this, as they are fairly large and therefore harder to miss.

The music is particularly worth mentioning. Since this game is heavily focused on a magical song, it stands to reason that the soundtrack was given a lot of attention by the creators. In addition to being incredibly atmospheric, there's a remix of a key sequence of notes (the Verse itself) found in nearly every song.


Learn to read and write Aquarian!
If you want to have a little extra fun, try translating the ancient glyphs written on walls, signs and structures throughout the game. While these appear to be random scribbles, they are actually readable English phrases that have been written in a strange and alien font. Most of the time the written words just echo what Naija will discover in the game's cutscenes, so this is entirely optional.


Treasure hunting
One optional activity in the game is to search out and collect various treasures from throughout the world. Most of these will be gathered together and used as furnishings in Naija's home, but a few are alternate costumes that she can wear. Some of the costumes have useful side effects too!


There's a LOT of things to find
Aquaria can take a few hours to play from start to finish. Even then, there's a lot of little places hidden away that you won't find if you're just focusing on the game's story. There are bonus bosses, hidden areas and even an underwater race course. Finding them all isn't easy, and you'll probably have to play through the game more than once to locate everything.


Many achievements to earn
As one would expect from a game on Steam, there's a number of achievements you can earn. A few are the typical achievements you get from progressing in the game, but some involve unusual actions like eating a parrot or poking a monkey in the bum with a cactus. Some can even become impossible to earn if you do the wrong things during a playthrough.


There's a secret ending
Throughout the world are three of Naija's forgotten memories. If you can find them all, you'll be granted a short secret ending. Unfortunately, this just leaves questions unanswered, becoming something of a mindscrew that was totally unnecessary.


Modding support
For a little extra fun, there's an option on the main menu that allows you to play a modded version of the game.


Cons

It's easy to end up in bad situations
Thanks to the number of bonus bosses and the fact that many of them are hidden in areas you're likely to explore, it's likely that you'll accidentally trigger some deadly fights that you weren't expecting, leading to a prompt game over. One of these can even be encountered before Naija has learned any offensive abilities.


No autosave
While this does have the advantage of allowing you to try something out and then reset things back to they way they were, it also means that you need to remember to stop at a red crystal and save as often as possible. This can bite you in the bum if you go for long periods without saving, as a bad surprise can cost you hours of gameplay.


Denied sequel
The secret ending opens a lot of questions as the set up for a sequel. While one seems to have originally been planned, it doesn't look like it'll ever happen as the team that made Aquaria broke up and went their separate ways long ago.


Concerns and Issues

Mildly suggestive outfits
Naija's default outfit is just a bikini with a cape. It does cover everything, but some parents would probably prefer something more modest. A costume found near the end of the game is a more revealing bikini, though like the default outfit, it still covers everything without being too questionable. On the other hand, there's a wearable suit of armor that can be found near the beginning of the game. That outfit covers just about everything.


Kill or be killed
Despite how much Aquaria looks like an underwater paradise, something will always be trying to kill Naija. Since she can be killed pretty easily, you need to keep healing items around, and you get those by killing fish or other creatures. Basically, everybody needs to eat, and everybody else is on the menu.


Magic by another name
The Verse is basically an all-encompassing energy field that can be manipulated to create magical effects. These include lifting objects, transforming Naija into various new forms and eventually even grant a human the ability to breathe underwater.


Interspecies Romance
Over the course of the story, Naija (a mermaid) will meet and fall in love with Li (a human). Their bond ends up being a key part of their victory in the end, and in the game's ending it's revealed that they will living together happily ever after with their son.


Special crystals interact with spirits
Throughout the game you'll encounter two types of crystals in the world. The larger red crystals are the more common ones, and Naija's narration explains that these store the spirit of anyone that touches them. This is just weaving the save feature into the game's lore, but it's a bit creepy.

The other type of crystal is blue and allows Naija to project her spirit outside of her body for a short time. Which is also creepy.


Mild gore
Some areas, most notably the areas around Mithalis, are covered in organic, fleshy growths. Learning why this is actually makes it more disturbing. Check the screenshot above for an example of what it looks like, and move on to the next item for the explanation.


Cannibalism and sacrifice
One of the races sought to grant themselves eternal life. Their method of choice was to drain the life forces out of people they declared to be "heretics". Once that was done, they force-fed the lifeless bodies to their god. This eventually led to their god becoming little more than an animal and its corruption spread the growths throughout the area. For an extra helping of disturbing thoughts, consider that in this game every race was brought into existence by their respective god. This literally means that this god was forced to eat his own children, and in the end he became so corrupted by the practice that he enjoyed it.


There's a reference to drug abuse
Most of the time, different foods heal Naija's injuries or provide her with a buff of some sort. However, there's a rarely found rainbow colored mushroom that basically causes her to experience a bad drug trip. The place where the mushroom is found has some writing on the wall, and translating it reveals that the person that gathered the shrooms could only find release through the mushroom's hallucinogenic effects.

Obviously this won't help you progress in the game (the effects even leave you wide open to any attack), so the only reason you'd actually cook with these mushrooms is if you wanted to see the freaky result or earn the achievement for finding every recipe.


Slaying "gods"
As you might have noticed from the above paragraphs, there are a number of gods in Aquaria. To progress in the game, Naija needs to defeat the gods of the four major extinct races. Ultimately, she'll confront and kill the higher god known as the Creator. This isn't framed as an anti-religious message, as she is either fighting for her own survival or cleaning up messes that resulted from some severe hubris. In fact, the god that was corrupted by evil followers actually blesses her for ending his misery.


Naija begins to fear for her own soul
As she becomes increasingly powerful, Naija begins to openly worry that her new and destructive powers will corrupt her, stripping her of the innocence and purity she originally possessed. This is emphasized by the way she'll start to giggle to herself if you use certain power to kill a lot of things quickly.


Anti-Christian thread in the plot?
One of the key elements of the overarching plot is that the Creator made a number of intelligent beings, gave them free will, and then turned around and punished them harshly for using it. This is also a common complaint about Christianity; specifically the nature of sin and Hell.

I doubt this was the intended interpretation of the game's story (as it's overly simplistic and ignores may other points) but the similarity is there.