Do you know those games that rely on a single element of attraction? It might be a unique art style, a novel gameplay mechanic or even high difficulty. Hydrophobia is that game. It isn’t a pretty game and it doesn’t have the best narrative in the world. It’s not necessarily fun or accessible to play either. But it totally dominates when it comes to water.

Wait, water? Indeed, as odd as it may seem, Hydrophobia’s biggest asset is the quality of H2O in-game. Developed by Dark Energy Digital, Hydrophobia released in 2010 as an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive. Initially, it was met with poor review scores, prompting more work and updates from the developer. It was then ported to PC and PlayStation 3 the next year as Hydrophobia Prophecy. Admittedly though, it was still far from being a polished gameplay experience.

Many of the same shortcomings were left without attention: the clunky controls, the bland level design and the rather awful voice acting. But as lacklustre as its gameplay was, Hydrophobia still had some impressive water physics. Equip your rebreather because in this article we’ll take a look at Hydrophobia and water. Lots of water.

New World Order

Hydrophobia

First things first. Hydrophobia tackles, or rather, attempts to tackle, the complex subject of overpopulation. It’s the middle of the current century and the world is plagued by the so-called Great Population Flood. This leads the elite of the society to build the Queen of the World – a humongous naval vessel housing only the most distinguished members of the population. Not everyone agrees to such a solution to a global problem, of course.

Early on, the ship is assaulted by a terrorist group known as the Malthusians. One of their slogans – “Save the world, kill yourself” – says it all. The Malthusians aim to kill as many citizens of the ship as possible, thus easing the burden of overpopulation on society. Nice, huh? If that’s not a grim premise, I don’t know what is.

Where do you come in? Are you one of the founders? A fine gentleman in the vein of BioShock’s Andrew Ryan? Perhaps you’re a terrorist seeking to end injustice and make the world a better place for everyone? Neither. You take on the role of Kate Wilson, a lowly Systems Engineer. And before you get your hopes up, she’s definitely no Isaac Clarke.

Assisted by her Scotsman partner Scoot over the radio, Kate must figure out how to stop the Malthusians and get off the ship before it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. But as novel as the overall premise may seem, the story suffers from poor writing and voice acting. Exchanges between Kate and Scoot often feel like they’re trying to replicate those found in some of the Tomb Raider games. In fact, all characters in Hydrophobia are poorly and often inappropriately voiced.

It ended on a cliffhanger and never received a conclusion due to poor reception. But maybe that’s a blessing in disguise.

Take My Breath Away

Hydrophobia Xbox One

Let’s digress from the awful narrative into something positive. There’s one saving grace in Hydrophobia: water. Have I told you about the water? Water is great. It keeps you hydrated and healthy. A plunge into the pool can help you cool off during a hot summer day. But water can also kill you (oh no!). It just so happens that water in Hydrophobia is of the evil murderous kind. Following the attack, the ship sustains heavy external and internal damage.

Water in Hydrophobia looks and feels great. It seeps through the cracks in the hull and forces its way deeper into the ship. Rooms and hallways quickly submerge, enveloping you in a sense of helplessness. It flushes away debris and doesn’t spare anyone caught in its grasp, including Kate herself. Facing off against a natural disaster is far more frightening than any demon or half-rotten zombie. Initial segments focus on survival alone.

There’s a real force to it and Kate is often swept off her feet by an approaching wave. This leaves you with only precious seconds to get a grasp of your surroundings and get out. Visibility underwater is poor and sometimes you have to traverse a fairly long distance with no oxygen, nervously looking for pockets of air to replenish it. While not every underwater escapade provides this sense of urgency, the ones that do are easily among the game’s best moments.

Outside of these swimming portions, Hydrophobia is a generic 3D action-adventure game. You guide Kate through the collapsing hallways, climb burning elevator shafts and balance on fragile ceiling beams. At times, you also scan the environment for clues and collectables. Hydrophobia completely falls apart when it introduces combat later on. Poorly designed cover and shooting mechanics make encounters against the Malthusians an entirely forgettable affair.

Hydrophobia Xbox

With all of the above in mind, would I recommend you try Hydrophobia 10 years later? If you love survival games, then maybe. Hydrophobia is worth taking a look at for its water physics, and water physics alone. There’s not much to it other than that. Hydrophobia often feels like a budget Tomb Raider wannabe. In terms of everything else, it’s a combination of forgettable narrative, poor gunplay and downright awful traversal mechanics.

On the flip side, at £7.19 it’s not going to be a painful investment either way.

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