Review: Hydrophobia

Hydrophobia seemed as though it would be something new and refreshing for the Xbox Live Arcade selection that has seemed to stagnate over the past few months. Even the game’s title, referring to the irrational fear of water, was puzzling to me. Elements of psychological and survival horror called out to me and sang a chilling tune as I made my way deeper into its world. And as I attempted to infiltrate the massive Queen of the World ship in order to get to the bottom of a bizarre terrorist attack, I slowly began to realize that the combination of mediocre voice acting, iffy controls, and frustrating mechanics were hampering the experience too much to keep it fresh. With a heavy heart, I sat down to pen this review, lamenting the wasted potential of what could have been a much more engaging adventure.

In a decidedly dystopian future setting, engineer Kate Wilson is enjoying a rare night off on the Queen of the World. The ship is home to the Five Founding Fathers, otherwise known as the fattest cats of society in a world where the population rapidly increases without time for the land to catch up and sustain it. After a rather peculiar turn of events, Kate goes deep to uncover the secret behind the Malthusians, terrorists who overtake the ship itself, and attempts to keep all of its passengers safe. And that is where the first few problems lie. Kate Wilson is a powerful and believable enough character, but the supporting cast falls rather flat. Add bizarre stunted speech into the equation and you have a cast that’s more laughable than tense, leaving the narrative itself open for ridicule.

Hydrophobia plays out rather typically as a third-person adventure title, but more often than not you’ll have to contend with, you guessed it, tidal surges of water. If you weren’t afraid of the liquid of life before (or mildly irritated by it) then you will be after playing this. When you must contend with water, generally in ways that involve solving physics-based puzzles, it’s done quite masterfully and the waves do indeed look realistic — so realistic, in fact, that their very movement becomes one of the main hindrances in-game. Exploding barrels can send shockwaves down corridors, but take you with them as the physics ultimately work against you. Kate will try her best to swim against the devastating current but in the end it’s more frustrating than anything. And you thought regular water levels were hard.

Being prompted to get out of water is a chore in itself, if you can hit the button quick enough. And swimming under the rampaging waves is a feat unto itself. If you can manage to get to your destination without having drowned first, then consider yourself lucky, as it can be very difficult to gauge exactly how long you can last. In fact, whether you’re struggling for air or trying to work out exactly how close to death you are, either way is a gamble thanks to the severely minimalistic HUD. I’m all for pleasant aesthetics, but come on.

On dry land, Hydrophobia could mimic a normal third-person stop-and-pop shooter quite well. Unfortunately, it does not provide ample amounts of ammo, so each shot needs to count. When you’re out of shots, you have to rely on Kate’s atrocious stun gun, and to take enemies down with this requires a hefty amount of patience and more than a few shots. It’s best to be prudent and reserve ammo for tight spots, as Kate is apparently unable to connect her fist to the enemies’ faces, and instead must use the stun shot over and over as a default means of self-defense. That doesn’t get old or impractical at all, nope. And it doesn’t help that most of the onslaught of baddies are cookie-cutter representations of each other.

When the game’s physics aren’t trying hard to work against you, there is some fun to be had in the form of platforming, exploring the ship, and brief hacking minigames that Kate must rely on to access hidden alcoves. There are a good deal of collectibles to be found throughout if you want to put the time into finding them. Most notably, journal entries scattered throughout the Queen of the World offer a great deal of back story that you can read to fill in the missing pieces the cut scenes do not, themselves, provide.

Hydrophobia is ambitious and the effort that went into making the raging waves as realistic as possible is appreciated, but ultimately wasted. The attempt at an engaging narrative featuring a dystopian, confusing future was enough to hook me, but in the end sticky controls, extremely stiff voiceovers, and various other issues make this game one I’d encourage others to pass on. I’d like to see a more polished sequel, however, as this license could do some interesting things. Unfortunately, this first attempt just isn’t up to snuff.

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