Released only in Asian countries, Aquanaut’s Holiday received a rudimentary English translation, but not much Western coverage. Pity, since it is quite excellent. (oh, I also rant against my pet-hate: trophies)
When deciding whether to buy a PS3 or a 360, I wrote up a list of interesting system exclusives and the regions they were in, to help me choose. Aquanaut’s Holiday, along with Afrika, was on the PS3 – and furthermore, despite them at the time being Asian-only releases, they were in English and region free. The 360 had a lot of good exclusives I found, but they were strewn between US (English) and Japan exclusives, mostly region locked. In short: Aquanaut’s Holiday is one of the reasons I bought the hardware, and it didn’t disappoint. (That, and I really didn’t feel like paying Microsoft over a thousand dollars just to have three regions of hardware and free choice when playing – bugger that for a game of soldiers).
Hidden Memories is actually the latest in a series of Aquanaut games which first started on the PS1, none of which I’ve played. But I have played and thoroughly enjoyed Treasures of the Deep, Everblue 1 and 2, plus the 3D version of Ecco. So I’ve come to realise that I love almost any game set underwater, and Hidden Memories is the most technically advanced that I’ve seen (though gameplay is a little less involved than the above).
I bought both Aqua and Afrika at the same time, but started Afrika first, vowing to only start Aqua after completion. Both dealt with photographing creatures in their natural environment and I wanted to focus on just one at a time. Over a year after buying them I’ve now finished Aquanaut’s Holiday – 19 hours playtime, 91% of the photolibrary completed. Since purchase Afrika has seen a US release, while Aqua has not, which is a shame since it’s the vastly superior title of the two. Having said that, I still think both are essential to own by virtue of how different they are to everything else.
Whereas Afrika often features ropy looking environments and badly animated animals, Aqua’s depiction of the deep sea is never short of breathtaking. The draw distances are impressive and the texturing very detailed, unless you get stupidly up close to something. The creatures also swim convincingly and, unless you zoom right in using the photolibrary, look nicely realistic. What pushes Aqua ahead is how streamlined the gameplay is. In Afrika you had to camp in an area, wait for animals to get close, photograph them repeatedly, then head back to camp and email in what you hoped was the best photo for them to be registered. It’s laborious, time consuming, often boring and sometimes infuriating when the game arbitrarily gives you a D ranking for a photo – you’re also likely to spook the animals quite easily. In Aqua the fish ignore you, you’re an invisible voyeur almost, and there are hundreds more creatures to find. Documenting them simply involves clicking on them with your pointed, whereupon they’re registered at base camp and you instantly receive money. In half an hour you might discover 20 species of fish, keeping the pace in tune with how fast you want to play. Slow and easy or very fast – it’s your choice.
Aqua also excels in atmosphere. I’m almost pleased this wasn’t covered by the mainstream, because undoubtedly they wouldn’t understand it. There’s no scoring beyond money acquired for species documentation, and gameplay consists solely of pure exploration and a few “Simon Says” audio games with certain fish. The audio games are used to upgrade your submarine as you make progress, but are fairly easy and can be mostly ignored. So really, the sole point of this is to leisurely explore the sea, making notes of whales, slugs, wrecked ships, Stonehenge, and other interesting things. Discovering new species yields money, which is used to buy SONOBUOY batteries which increase your map’s cruising range, but you don’t need much to purchase a full compliment.
There’s a fun little story told through a sometimes hilarious Engrish translation, and towards the end Aqua almost turns into the film Abyss. If, like me, you regard the Abyss as one of the best films to come out of Hollywood, then you should love Aqua’s final sections. It’s extremely soothing to just sit back and cruise, playing in the dappled light of the shallows, or descending in the dark depths to discover giant squid and seemingly-extinct creatures. Even after completion you’re encouraged to go back and play, since a few side-missions unlock.
As a system exclusive which is now never likely to receive a US release (the English text just needs a little sub-editing to remove the Engrish), I would encourage everyone even remotely interested to import it (make sure you get the Asian release, with a mix of Chinese and English). Buy it to enjoy and relax with, especially on those lazy summer Sunday afternoons. There is very little else like it (except maybe on the Wii) and for me, it did everything I had hoped for.
About the only criticism I can raise against Aqua, is the inclusion of trophies. Prior to such things, I would have completed it with 91% and felt satisfied. Now though, myself and others checking my profile are forced to know that I’ve only completed ~30% of the trophies, some of which are so asinine that to collect them all without using a guide would probably require an additional 20 hours of random searching. I really have to question who these trophies are created for – who, honestly, has played through and done everything without using some form of guide? Is it even possible? There’s a Japanese Wikipedia page, but I’m reluctant to use it, since I feel the experience would ruin my happy views of this. Furthermore, the otherwise optional audio games with fish take an excruciatingly long time to play all of them and achieve the trophy for each species – working on the easiest fish in the game, I reached level 14 before deciding I really couldn’t be bothered trying for any of the trophies. How high do they go? I had hoped level 10 would be the top, but for all I know it could be level 100.
And for those who want to inform me that trophies are optional, I have to say this: no they are not.
If trophies were optional, I could disable them on my PS3 and would never again have my gaming ruined by the sound of “kerching” and a box stating that I’ve just unlocked something (this absolutely destroyed Flower for me). Furthermore, I would be able to disable them from my profile so that others would not be able to see them. But I can’t, I’m forced to be aware of their existence, so therefore they are not optional, they are most definitely mandatory. Sony has decreed that if you own a PS3, you absolutely must, without choice, be forced to know about trophies. Your trophies, other people’s trophies, other game’s trophies. You cannot not know about them.
I’m a proficient, veteran gamer, but I have about 20 trophy entries on my PSN profile, all hovering around 30% or less. What does this say to the world? If you’re the kind of person who needs regular little bagdes to feel vindicated for playing games, do it on your own time, without your system interfering with mine. Go join the scouts or something. I play games to play, not have a machine curtly point out that I’ve only “made the most” of 30% of an otherwise fantastic and essential game.
My only other wish now is: are we ever likely to see an Everblue 3 on the PS3? If so, no trophies please.