Games are essentially designed to satisfy a player’s curiosity, but it’s rare that the characters you play are as excited as you are to expand their boundaries.
But in Aquaria, your own natural inquisitiveness is matched by that of protagonist Naija, a mercreature who, bored of the cave in which she lives, sets out to explore the world around her to uncover its secrets, and those of her species.
It’s a port of the PC game that won the Grand Prize in 2007’s Independent Games Festival, and even four years on it’s easy to see why it was garlanded with praise, even if there’s something sweetly inconsequential about it all.
That’s not really a criticism: merely an observation that you never sense there’s anything particularly crucial at stake. As such, it’s mostly relaxing, unfolding at a leisurely pace, as you swim through a network of caves and tunnels that gradually opens up the more you explore.
It follows the familiar Metroidvania structure, with areas gated off until you’ve earned the ability to bypass the obstacle that's blocking your path, Naija adopting a number of different forms to progress.
Naija can also sing, which allows her to interact with the environment, sometimes provoking little more than a gentle aesthetic response, but gradually learning songs that have a more pronounced effect on her world.
Aquaria has a hand-painted look that's striking without being ostentatious. It’s a subtly beautiful game, enchanting you through delicate animations and intricate detail that proves a beguiling backdrop to your exploration.
The music, while repetitive, is also soothing and unobtrusive, making for an entirely pleasant audiovisual experience.
Seahorses for courses
It’s almost the perfect chill-out game, but Bit Blot introduces enemies into the equation, and it’s here that things go a little awry.
The controls, so perfectly retuned for iPad and ideal for exploration, feel a little fiddly when it comes to combat. It’s telling that this is the only time you really think what your fingers are doing – everything else feels fluid and natural.
These are minor annoyances rather than serious complaints, and while some of the tougher encounters can feel a little messy, the game isn’t difficult or unforgiving enough to make these occasions any more than a fleeting annoyance.
The only other irritation comes in the slightly pretentious writing, which spends a lot of time talking about a life force that flows through us all and binds us as one. It’s nothing more than an underwater version of the Force, but Aquaria takes itself a little too seriously.
It's not a deal-breaker, and less cynical types will admire its world-building. For me, Aquaria’s visual storytelling is superior to its narrative – it’s a world you’ll be more than happy to get lost in.
At just £2.99 for a game that cost $30 on release, Aquaria is extremely good value for money, and with its fluid and responsive touch control, the iPad version is even better than the original.
Want more? Check out our growing collection of Aquaria articles!