Hydrophobia is the perfect example of a game where development is focused almost entirely on its central mechanic. In Hydrophobia’s case, this mechanic is water. Developers ‘Dark Energy’ have created a hugely impressive engine where water appears lifelike and magnificent. It’s unfortunate, then, that the rest of the game has been neglected. From terrible combat to confusing and awkward design issues, Hydrophobia is rarely entertaining and often frustrating.
Kate hates water. It’s understandable, as her sister drowned in a tragedy hinted at in the game’s opening (and one that isn’t touched on throughout the main adventure, unfortunately). Perplexing as it is that she’d want to be a systems engineer on iconic city ship, The Queen of the World, she nevertheless loves her job. She chooses work over a night off, on the day of the ship’s 10th anniversary – a day of parties, celebration and buckets of champagne, and the perfect time for terrorists to strike. En route to check a system failure, she boards a rigged lift that drops her hundreds of feet to the bottom of the ship, where her nightmare begins.
The story is largely non-existent, as it is introduced and then hardly developed. Documents and radio communication provide most of the narrative cues to little effect, and the terrorists are faceless non-entities. Characterisation is poor, with Kate’s fear of water – a concept of great potential – barely explored, save for her badly acted moments of despair, which she gets over remarkably quickly. While Kate is at least mildly likeable, with her boyish charm and Lara Croft-esque ability (although her Irish accent pales next to that of the English rose), a lot less can be said about her sidekick: ‘Scoot’. Yes that’s right, Scoot. Possessor of one of the most irritating voices in videogame history and single handily butchering the Scottish accent, Scoot provides most of the dialogue in the game, and his inane babbling soon starts to grate. One minute he’ll be making an unnecessary joke out of Kate’s apparently terrifying ordeal, the next he’ll be comforting her, and all with that terrible voice of his. It’s odd that someone like him should feature in a game like this.
The opening of the game shows real promise, however, with a mix of interesting platforming sections and some exciting set-pieces that you hope hint at things to come – water gushes in through the walls as you amble down corridors and navigate dangerous lift shafts. In fact, this first of three acts is genuinely enjoyable for the most part, arguably because it features less water, but it’s the second act – which is also the longest – where the game plunges into mediocrity, and all of its flaws surface.
While the use of water in Hydrophobia is its greatest asset, it is also its greatest pitfall. Visually it is fantastic. Waves slosh about believably and accurately, and rooms fill up slowly giving the player an increasing sense of dread. Objects often litter waterlogged corridors and must be navigated against fierce time limits. Environmental elements like fire and electricity affect the water surface providing even more danger, and there is nothing more satisfying than shooting a window and seeing gallons of water gush beautifully out of it. The problems with the water begin when your interaction with it becomes more than just paddling.
Kate isn’t a great swimmer, at least controls wise. When fully submerged, swimming is generally awkward, unintuitive, and frustrating. When you dive in or out of a lot of water, Kate seems to jerk unresponsively. She will often act as if falling over when approaching dry land, and frequently get stuck underneath platforms obscured by an unpredictable camera. Constant changes in water levels mean Kate will regularly switch from running to swimming to walking to diving, which becomes impossible to avoid. It’s hard to blame the developers for these inconsistencies as it is testament to the erratic nature of their water engine, and for that they should be applauded. There are times when Kate’s interaction with the water works excellently, but these are few and far between.
Hydrophobia is not all about Kate and the frightening forces of water – it is also about fighting terrorists, or ‘Neo-Malthusians – people who believe that the only cure for over-population is death. It’s disappointing that the developers couldn’t have made the water the true enemy of the game, as bringing in human enemies turns the game into yet another third person shooter, and a particularly bog-standard one at that.
Early on in the game you find a pistol, and so the tedious combat begins. Using the gun is both awkward and utterly unsatisfying. Having to charge up your gun a few seconds to hurt an enemy becomes stale quickly, and, once the terrorist is knocked out, having to repeatedly charge and fire at the man’s prone but alive body for the next minute is quite soul-destroying. Things improve when you gather new ammo types – including a neat explosive gel that can stick to your foes before exploding after a countdown – but these are in short supply and you’ll soon find yourself re-acquainted with the default spud, sorry, stun gun. The aiming reticule isn’t responsive enough, and having to equip your gun to be able to get into cover proves problematic. Combat is at its worst however when completely submerged, as your view is often obscured by objects, temperamental camera angles and even Kate herself. It’s always unclear how close to death you are, too, as the only indication is a creeping red mist on the screen, which stays the same even if you are one shot from being killed. Combat scenarios are generally a pain, and with a few exceptions, you’ll be relieved to see the back of them.
And you’ll be happy to see the back of the countless repetitive cipher puzzles the game throws at you. You start by finding a locked door that’s encrypted by those pesky Malthusians. Following this you must find a frequency key, then, using a device called the MAVI, scan the area for a specific pattern. Once this pattern is found you can record the data and return to the encrypted door and open it. Rinse and repeat. At first, decryption is a mildly entertaining novelty, but when it starts appearing in every subsequent section of the game, it becomes wholly uninteresting and a real annoyance every time Scoot informs you there’s another encrypted door around the corner.
The deciphering puzzles are even more irritating when the pattern you’re looking for is underwater, as you constantly have to keep diving and scanning, and then re-surfacing just to get your breath back. It doesn’t help that your movement is at quarter speed when you scan, either. Objects can often obscure the patterns too, and if the obstruction is convincing enough, you can spend ages looking in the wrong places for a pattern purely because a container was directly covering the pattern in the first place.
There are other puzzles in the form of a hacking mini-game where you must match frequency and amplitude waves, and fortunately these are well spaced in the game and satisfying to crack – therapeutic even, especially compared to the repetitive back and forth nature of the cipher puzzles.
While the cipher puzzles are too frequent, at least they are explained well and are simple to understand, unlike most parts of the game, which suffer from an abundance of design issues. Often you will be given a mere hint of what you have to do next, and then the game will leave it up to you to work out how this must be done. This is all fine when you have abilities and tools you are aware of, but when you’re expected to know how to climb a room, when there is no indication that this is what you must do, things get frustrating. You’ll be told to return to a specific area, an area you have no clue where it is, and an area that is now submerged with water, making things even more like a lesson in trial and error.
More common design flaws include similar looking objects that do different things, such as gas canisters that may or may not explode upon bullets, and poles that you may or may not be able to climb, even though they look identical. You often find yourself wandering around an area for many wasted minutes hoping for a clue telling you where to go next. Exploration and level progress is made even more frustrating with an ugly map that is hard to read and understand, with tunnels and higher levels obscuring the lower levels.
All these poor design choices would not be so bothersome if there were more variety in the areas you visit. Most of the action is situated at the bottom of the ship, so engine rooms and similar industrial stages populate most of the game. There is a lack of variety here; as once you’ve seen one steam room you’ve seen them all. The final act brings in a welcome change as you see more colourful environments and a more interesting area of the ship, so the following episode is one to watch.
Regarding replay value, there is a neat challenge room that pits you against ten enemies for five rounds with controllable water and a load of exploding barrels and ammo refills, and these provide a welcome change of pace and a surprisingly enjoyable, unique experience, next to the generic combat encounters present in the main game. Medals can be won as you fulfil certain criteria in the story mode, and documents can be found along your adventure, making Hydrophobia a game to come back to if you enjoyed it first time around.
Hydrophobia isn’t a bad game. In fact, its water engine judged on its own merits is utterly outstanding. It demonstrates how virtual water can be just as unpredictable and dynamic as the real thing, but it also shows how a brilliant engine does not make a brilliant game. With poor combat and clumsy controls, repetitive gameplay, and many frustrating design issues, Hyrophobia is not the wet dream we all wanted, just a conceptual one.