Aquaria Cover
Platforms PC, Mac, Linux
Genre Undersea Explore-and-Puzzler
MtAMinutes to Action 1
Keep Playing? Yes, but barely

It's rare that we get to combine our love for games with charitable donations, and unheard of that we can feel like a smart shopper while doing both. Such a concoction of impossibility was made real when the Humble Indie Bundle experiment went live on May 4, 2010. For a limited time, five acclaimed indie games (Aquaria, Gish, Lugaru HD, Penumbra Overture, and World of Goo) were offered as a bundle to whatever price they were willing to give. For any price you name, you could have access to five games you may or may not love. A sixth game, Samorost 2, was even added to the bunch as extra incentive. You could even split your price between the developers and two partner charities, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Child's Play Charity, at whatever fractions you wanted. I gave $7.50 to the developers and $7.50 to the charities myself, contributing to the $1,270,00 in total donations contributed as of May 15. It's a great cause that also happens to be a great deal.

Having only previously played (or even heard of) the fantastic World of Goo, I decided to go alphabetically and spend an hour with Aquaria first. Aquaria was created by Bit Blot, an independent game company comprised of Alec Holowka and Derek Yu, in 2007. An indie games festival winner known for its atmosphere, Aquaria is an underwater 2D sidescroller with a focus on exploration and puzzle-solving, in the same vein as Metroid.

As I dive into Aquaria for the first time, I wonder if it's true what they say: is it really better down where it's wetter, under the sea?

Minute by Minute

(minutes are in bold)
00 - I select New Game and the first hour of Aquaria begins. A woman's voice narrates about the "Verse," which binds and flows through all living things. Could this game secretly be about undersea Jedi?

01 - I'm given control of my character, some kind of Atlantian sea-lady, the narrator. I hold the left mouse button or spacebar to swim in the direction my mouse is pointing. I can also swim up to a wall, cling to it, and quickly swim away with a click.

02 - I swim through a dark tunnel and arrive at an opening with plenty of light and color. This is definitely a pretty game.

03 - "Hold CTRL to sing" it says. Pressing CTRL brings up a wheel of icons around my character, each of which produces a different sound when I hover the mouse over it. Reminds me of Ocarina of Time.

04 - I come to the skeleton of a large sea creature and head for an alcove on the right. Inside is a small green bud. I decide to try singing at it. Nothing happens when I hover over most of the icons, but the green of the same shade seems to resonate with the plant, causing it to ripple until it bursts. I collect the item within, though I have no idea what it is.

05 - I swim back past the skeleton and through another narrow cave. Small jellyfish swim around, though they appear harmless. They glide with the same grace as the character I control.

06 - A message pops up and says I can look around by holding the left Shift button or the middle mouse button. I am playing the game with a laptop touchpad so I have no middle mouse button, and left Shift doesn't appear to do anything...maybe because I'm playing on a Mac? Anyway another hint says to sing to the plants to open them, which I already figured out.

07 - I come across a large boulder blocking a path. Ramming it does nothing, so I guess I need to come back later. An underwater tide pushes me through a cave. I can't swim against it, but it circles around at the top so I can go back where I was.

08 - I come across a larger fish, and the narrator says I should dash to "leave my pursuers in my wake." Guess the idea is to avoid trouble in this game. The fish doesn't appear very concerned with me anyway, simply swimming back and forth in the cave.

09 - "Absorb blue plants to restore Naija's health." I guess my character is Naija, and the green semicircle in the bottom right corner is my health?

Aquaria Green10 - As I exit the cave, the narrator lets me know that singing a sequence of notes will activate songs: I try the example given and am granted a shield. Not that anything's really tried to harm me yet...

11 - It seems I've spoken too soon...I enter a narrow cave and smack right into a crab on the cavern, taking about a quarter of my health. Purple flames also chase me, though the shield seems to deflect them. It disappears after about thirty seconds. I find another plant, and learn a recipe. Looks like there's cooking in this game as well.

12 - I continue through the narrow cavern and come across a giant red gem. The narrator says that these gems are for recording stories for posterity. Sounds like a save point to me. I record my progress and move on.

13 - Suddenly everything goes dark. A vortex appears behind me, and a shadowy figure emerges. It speeds past me and stops in an opening ahead. The narrator implies that her life is about to be changed by "her." I like the way this sounds.

14 - I swim up to the stranger, and she(?) touches my forehead. Some images of my character flash...are they past or future? Suddenly I'm in control another character in another place. I appear somewhat more human, but my hands are bathed in flames.

15 - I maneuver through the dark, narrow path before me. Suddenly a swarm of fireballs burst out from nowhere! There's no way I can dodge them all. I try to make it through the chaos and see a light ahead, but the screen goes dark as I take more hits, finally fading to black.

16 - More images flash before the screen, and I'm back in the present. The narrator notes that this is her first experience of any importance: she only knew her name and location before this, thinking only of simple desires. Now she wants answers. The shadowy figure fades away.

17 - I follow the figure's fading light to a new area: Home Waters. I sing to a plant and am rewarded with some kind of leaves. Woo, leaves.

18 - Swimming through more paths. Another plant produces some red fruit. The mini-map in the corner flashes, saying I should double-click it to check out the full map. It's quite detailed in its layout, showing all of the paths exactly to scale. It's full of rapidly-flashing circles, though I have no idea what they mean or where to go.

19 - I continue exploring and find a lighted cavern. Upon entering, I'm told it's my home. Seems pretty nice...

21 - Exploring my house reveals little. A bedroom that appears to have no purpose. A red gem for saving my game. The kitchen area catches my eye. Apparently I can use my recipes to make food, and not just here. It appears the leaves and fruits I found are used here. Some recipes give stat bonuses, like extra speed or health.

22 - I decide to make the Hand Roll from fish meat and a leaf. It grants me +1 speed, and I'm moving twice as fast. Could be useful in this game since it seems like I run away from danger rather than take it on.

24 - It seems my options open up here, as plenty of paths seem to extend from this clearing. I choose a narrow passage with anemones on the wall, though it leads to a boulder that blocks me from progressing further. I touch an anemone on the way out and my life bar is shaved slightly.

25 - I try another direction and come upon a swarm of jellyfish-like things that make moaning noises. After taking a few hits, I find a narrow tide passage in the wall. It takes me back to the opening of the area. Let's try somewhere else...

26 - An octopus bursts from a cave, damn it's fast. It shoots some clouds of ink, though I don't appear to be its target. It runs away.

27 - I enter its cave and find an egg at the bottom. I can't seem to do anything with it...upon exiting, the octopus suddenly appears and darts away. I guess it was camouflaged. Wish I could be camouflaged...

Aquaria Fish28 - HOLY CRAP. As I was singing to burst a plant, a huge fish just came out of nowhere and swallowed me! I guess it didn't like the taste, because it spit me quite forcefully into a wall.

29 - Swimming to an area on the map I haven't been to. A boulder blocks the path.

30 - Another area, another boulder. Sigh.

31 - Tried another one, this one has some sort of thin wall in the way.

32 - I descend to the depths and wind through a tunnel into a new area: The Song Cave. There are large rocks here with carvings on them...Naija mentions that there is knowledge to be discovered here. I'd rather discover some sweet guns or undersea magicks...but knowledge is power too, I guess.

33 - It seems I've found an ancient door. Naija notes that I will have to look around to find how to open it. Good call, sea lady.

34 - Found another save point. Above it is an enormous anemone on the ceiling. Probably shouldn't go near that guy...

35 - I come across a strange statue of a head with ram horns. The horns have inscriptions of symbols. I swear I just heard it chuckle at me...

37 - I continue through the area, finding a collection of rocks with more swirl patterns on them. In an alcove I find a "lost treasure" of which there are many hidden throughout Aquaria. They modify Naija's home somehow.

38 - I find myself back at the door. Looking at the map, I've explored every area of the Song Caves except one...

40 - Upon arriving in the area, I find a strange image of two sea creatures, and behind it some symbols. The symbols appear to be the same as some of my Song notes...singing the notes lights up the corresponding symbols on the wall, though nothing seems to happen even when I use them in order. Maybe this is the key to the door? Better memorize the four-note song...

41 - It works! The door shimmers and a portal opens.

42 - I'm in a new area, and my attention is directed towards some egg, or maybe a plant. Unfortunately a boulder blocks the way, as always. I take the opposite route.

44 - I come upon a crystal, though this time it's blue rather than red. Naija touches it, and a creature appears. It shares its memories with Naija and teaches a new song, the Bind spell. Apparently this one will let me move things through the water.

Aquaria Turtle45 - I try the song out and voila! A decent-sized rock on the ground rises up to meet me. It follows wherever I go and drops when I repeat the song.

46 - I do the obvious and pull up the rock that blocked my path to the egg earlier. Singing its color, it cracks and extends my life bar.

47 - Exiting the door I opened, a large rock sits. I decide to pick it up and try ramming into an electric jellyfish with it. After a few hits, the jellyfish decides to stop putting up with it and darts around the area, randomly electrocuting itself (and me, when I'm nearby).

48 - Back at the save point. The rock is still with me.

49 - I come across a snail on the wall, and am told the Bind spell can remove its shell. I do this, though it doesn't seem to serve any purpose I can find right now.

50 - Found my way back to the head sculpture. It definitely laughed at me again...I try the Bind spell, and an area of the water flashes, but nothing seems to happen.

51 - I find a sea turtle and remove its shell. It's much faster now. You're welcome, sea turtle. It thanks me by ramming me and taking some of my life. Ingrate.

52 - I pick up a large rock and kill a blue jellyfish. It gives up some health, though I feel kind of bad since the guy didn't seem concnered with me at all...

53 - I use the rock to kill an un-shelled snail. Apparently this act of mollusk-cide teaches me how to make a healing recipe.

54 - I remove a boulder from a wall, though it just leads to an area I've been to before.

55 - I retreat back to the Home Waters, which are full of boulders to remove. The first one I try just leads to another thin wall blocking my way.

56 - I try another boulder and come to an area with lots of harmless jellyfish floating around. At the top is a big, somewhat menacing-looking tentacular-shell creature. I'll leave that alone for now.

57 - I swoop down to the depths and find a brown plant. I sing it open. It's another icon. These plants aren't very rewarding.

58 - I return to the shell creature and inch closer until...the music gets more menacing and it attacks AAAHH. Guess this is the first boss? It launches itself at me and does heavy damage. It also summons other creatures to attack and shoots fireballs as well. I have no idea what to do, I haven't learned any actual attacks after all...

60 - After a few minutes of swimming around helplessly and trying to sing (it's difficult when you're getting swarmed with attackers, large and small) I lose my last bit of life. I'm taken back to the last save point. The first hour ends.

Aquaria Shell

First Hour Summary

Minutes to Action: 1

What I liked: Aquaria's esteemed mood does not disappoint. The calming music, soft narration, colorful creatures, and graceful animation contribute an undersea experience unlike any I've played. The in-game storytelling is quite good as well. Most narration is done while in control, and the playable "visions" are a smart alternative to cutscenes.

What I didn't like: At this point in the game, it feels as if there is no direct combat. I don't believe Naija stays powerless through the game, but after an entire hour, the only offensive trick in my bag was to awkwardly drag rocks onto enemies. Might have missed something, though, since I didn't seem able to simply run away from that shell monster.

Video: Radiant and richly-populated, Aquaria is nothing if not pretty. Naija and the other denizens of the deep are some of the best-drawn and animated 2D sprites I've seen in quite a while, especially in an indie game.

Audio: The other half of the atosmphere, Aquaria's music is actually available for sale as an album. That should clue you in on how nice it sounds. Naija's narration is above par for voice work in games as well.

Story: The story has me curious and I'm looking forward to more undersea splendor, but I'd rather not spend much more time scouring a map only to find boulders to move around.

Gameplay: Thus far it boils down to exploring caverns under the sea, or so it seems until one realizes that most of the paths are blocked very early by boulders. The song system shows promise for puzzle-solving, however.

Challenge: The ocean deep is pretty unthreatening until a big jerk shell monster shows up and ruins your day.

Fun Factor: The wondrous atmosphere kept my interest, but the slow start to exploration isn't doing much to help.

Would I keep playing? Yes, but barely. I'm intrigued by the atmosphere, but unless things get shaken up soon, I probably won't make it past another hour.