Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Hydrophobia–Prophecy (PC, 2011, England): Water, Water Everywhere…
October 27, 2011, 1:06 am
Filed under: Hydrophobia--Prophecy (PC, 2011, England)

If you are unaware of Dark Energy Digital’s bumpy, and very public, development of the game “Hydrophobia,” the tale goes something like this: In September 2010 the game appeared as an XBL Arcade title, touted by Microsoft as the first in a new generation of high quality shooter and adventure games that would play like full retail, store-bought games and would go far beyond the smaller-sized (and hence more easily downloadable) side-scrollers and arcade staples that dominated the online store at that point in time. Even though it was a fully-realized, third-person shooter, somehow Dark Energy Digital managed to squeeze “Hydrophobia” into a package less than 2 GB in size—no small feat. Sounded like a good idea.

But then people bought and played Hydrophobia, and the dream went sour. Complaints about buggy controls, an inadequate storyline and ending (even though the game was advertised as the first in a series of three episodes), generally inconsistent and confusing gameplay, and other issues were raised by critics and everyday users alike. However, unlike most crappy XBLA titles that would have either suffered bad sales due to the complaints (or been unceremoniously pulled from the site), the developer (rather heroically) decided to revisit the game and introduce some serious tweaking. So, by December of that same year, a 4 MB upgrade to the game became available to Xbox Live users for free. For those who had never purchased the game, the price was reduced as well. So significant were the changes, the developer actually renamed the game “Hydrophobia: Pure.”

At the time when I bought the game on Xbox Live in late 2011, I was unaware of this history. I was trolling the back pages of XBL and came across the game and was reminded that I wanted to play it, so I bought it. The version I got was the new one with the 4 MB upgrade, and I was glad to have purchased the latest version… Or so I thought.

Since I knew I would be writing about this title on my blog (just because small titles like these made by fledgling developers fit the bill so perfectly), I knew I would need screenshots to accompany this post. And since unbelievably (regardless of the billion dashboard updates for the Xbox 360 over its checkered past), I still can’t take screenshots with my console without buying more peripherals (don’t get me started), I was hunting around the internet for pre-existing screenshots I could use. I hadn’t even started playing the game yet.

It was then I came across a new wrinkle in the “Hydrophobia” development story: Lo and behold, after further review of suggestions made by critics and players, the developers revisited the game yet again during the early part of 2011 and made even more significant changes, including a reworking of over 70% of the maps and also rewriting the ending and much of the backstory. They nixed a few of the irritating voiceovers and replaced them as well. In the spring, they released the game once again under yet another title: “Hydrophobia: Prophecy.” This version was ported specifically to the  PC, and it could be purchased through Steam. Wow, these are some determined developers, and I have to hand it to them for the way they listened to players and implemented ideas rapidly.

But you know what? Man, was I ever pissed because I had just paid good money for an outdated version of the game. Being the anal retentive game player I am, of course I had to buy the game a second time (this time, the PC version over Steam), not ever having even played the first version I had already purchased on XBL (which, as the BIG PRINT says, is totally non-refundable for any reason—thanks M$). The one upshot to playing the PC version of the game, of course, is that it is the latest iteration, including more refined gameplay and updated graphics. As a bonus, I was able to take my own screenshots for purposes of this discussion. So, I’m only sort of half bitching

As usual, my (completely unjustified and ignorant) love affair with this game started long before I ever even laid eyes on it, when I had only read a few foggy details about its backstory and saw some concept drawings. I first came across “Hydrophobia” around 2008 on the back pages of some commercial site—Gamespot or IGN–and I copied its name down onto my handwritten “Games I Want That Will Probably Become Vaporware” list (which also includes titles like “They,” “Project Delta,” and “Rainy Woods” [which became “Deadly Premonition”]). As usual, it was the apocalyptic story that intrigued me.  That story, as it was originally presented oh so long ago, doesn’t seem to have changed much in the actual released game: In 2051, our heroine Kate lives as an engineer on the largest cruise ship ever built—it is essentially a city on the water. Why a floating city? At this point in the planet’s devolution, a “population flood” has claimed many resources, and a variety of natural catastrophes and environmental mistakes have destroyed most of the fertile ground on the Earth to grow food (seawater rising and claiming land, deserts creeping and claiming land, etc.). Famine and poverty all around. The crisis leads to the creation of two opposing ideologies: The Cornucopians are mainly comprised of elite industrial tycoons who live and toil aboard said ship, seeking high-tech means to help feed the populace, primarily by figuring out ways to desalinate seawater with nanotechnology, so we can grow food once again. This would make everybody pretty happy. On the other hand, the Neo Malthusians are impatient terrorists who (unearthing and following some pretty radical ideas about population growth once proposed by philosopher Thomas Malthus in the late 1700s) think the solution is for people to kill themselves. Call it the “get thin quick” plan. Less people equals more resources all around. Hey, you might not like their message, but you can’t argue with their math. Of course, if you are unwilling or unable to kill yourself, the chosen amongst the Neo Malthusians will be more than happy to help out.

As the game opens, the massive ship, the Queen of the World, is attacked by the terrorists during its tenth anniversary celebration, and carnage and mayhem ensues, with little old Kate-the-Engineer to help everyone out of this mess. No one needs to tell me a story like this twice—I was sold on this game sight unseen. Characters in the game are scant—there is some small hint that Kate may have experienced a drowning in her past (maybe with a little sister?), which gives her some pathos and also makes her afraid of the water a bit (get it? Hydrophobia?!). There’s the typical “voice-over-the-radio” guy giving you directions and encouragement as you try and save the people aboard the ship. That guy’s name is Scoot, but we never actually see him. There’s the security chief, Billingham, who appears on screen for a total of 3 minutes maybe, so he’s a kind of a non-character, though he is supposed to be generally disliked. Then there’s the knife-wielding, white-haired-kitchen-help-terrorist-in-disguise lady (she looks a bit like Klaus Kinski, honestly) with a growling German accent (or something), a truly nasty character (with an asymmetrical, Albino-white hairdo and a scar slashed across her face) who starts this whole mess by smuggling the Neo Malthusians on board. That bitch. Once you get deeper into the game, finding and neutralizing her is your main goal.

Well, it would be years before “Hydrophobia” surfaced again and hit my radar detector, and I was surprised to see it being released as an XBLA title, but I was glad the developer found some means to finish the work and let the public have at it (which they eventually did, of course). Even after having to buy it twice (errr…), ultimately for me, the game is a qualified success (I said qualified, not unqualified). Important to note, as the first episode of several promised episodes (we’ll see…), it is a short game (critics say the three acts take less than for hours to play, and so that automatically means it took me six hours to play). The game is damn near gorgeous; it is bright, colorful…and really, really wet. As its signature trick (even the very early pre-game information hinted at this), the game claims to employ some of the most realistic water physics of all time. Reading through the handful of reviews you find on the net, most people, even those who ultimately disparage the title, were impressed by how water works in the game. It is truly fluid, and it is a real, physical force you must continually work with (or against) as you make your way through the levels. As Kate walks-runs-bobs-floats through the various halls and rooms of the giant ship trying to accomplish various objectives, the water swells and dips, making the camera wet, then suddenly you and the camera are both submerged, and you start to swim. Then, just as quickly, the ship tilts, and the water whooshes out of the room, and both the camera and you surface almost seamlessly, on your feet again. The sound changes, the physics changes, the camera focus changes—all of it instantly. Really quite impressive. Then, the next thing you know, the water is pushing your feet out from underneath you again, and you have to push Kate that much harder against the tide to make it to the next doorway, or to climb the next pipe, or to lunge for the next railing. It is also fun to keep your eyes on large glass doors and windows (behind which a massive volume of water sits) to shoot them and drown enemies. Good times. Later on (too late actually, as many people argue, and I agree), you acquire the power to actually control the water as a weapon (turning it into a big column you can smack people with and throw explosive barrels with), but I won’t reveal exactly how Kate turns into Aquaman.

Call it my own bias, but when encountering such a colorful, shiny game with a perky, spiky-haired gal protagonist living on a big, clean, ultramodern  ship (and whose quarters look like IKEA had a fire sale), I automatically think that it’s got to be a kiddie game, or at least a solid T-for-Teen.  After all, I just finished playing F.E.A.R. 3, in the burnt and destroyed city of Fairport. And before that, I played (you-fill-in-the-blank-here-with-the-title-of-any-apocalyptic-shooter-of-your-choice) whose backdrop was a wrecked, gray, smoke-filled, shattered, decaying hulk of a (fill-in-the-other-blank-here). You get my point. Booting up zazzy-looking “Hydrophobia” made me think I was about to begin playing a rainbow-colored Mario title. But two elements immediately changed my mind on that matter, and I checked to confirm that this is, indeed, an M-for-Mature-rated title. First, while the language is generally clean and doesn’t veer into anything too potty-mouthed, Kate is often shrieking “Shit! Shit! Shit!” when a gas main blows up in her face or a wall of water begins rushing at her. The Malthusian enemies are pegged as “assholes” on several occasions too. I am glad the language in the game, overall, has not been whitewashed (though the voice acting is only acceptable at best, nothing to write home about). More gritty, though, are the images of the Malthusians randomly carrying out their “Save The World-Kill Yourself” motto by lining up inhabitants and workers on the ship, having them kneel side by side, and then blowing their heads off at point blank while they beg for their lives. While there are no brains splattered across the walls, the assassinations are serious and dark nonetheless. Not to mention, constantly seeing the “Kill Yourself” phrase everywhere adds a dark, menacing tone to the otherwise bright, clean (if even slowly sinking) ship environments. I love paradoxes.

Somewhere around the third act, the game quickly transitions from a platformer-with-some-shooting into  a shooter-with-some-platforming. The change is…sort of welcome. My reaction is mixed because while the increased emphasis on shooting ramps up the tension level, the shooting mechanic is not entirely polished. The over-the-shoulder aim is fine, and hit detection is forgiving. But the guns feel underpowered. Actually, there’s just one gun—it can utilize several different types of rounds, including explosive gel rounds [which, after tagging an enemy, slowly count down on screen to explosion, which is pretty neat], electricity rounds [same thing here], high speed rounds [which turn the pistol into a kind of machine gun while the rounds last], and then the sonic rounds which only stun enemies initially but with several hits can take an enemy down. (Two points to mention: The sonic rounds are infinite in number, and if you stun an enemy who falls face-down in water, of course, he drowns, which is a plus). In addition to the semi-weak gun, your enemies are for some reason incredibly difficult to find—they seem to blend right into the various backgrounds on the ship. This might be because there are so often lots of sprites on screen (gas mains blowing up or spewing fire, electric arcs from downed wires, reflective water flowing everywhere) that create a bit too much confusion on screen in order to focus on one small enemy who is taking cover behind a trash can and who has pinpoint aiming. Another problem is the hit indicator—the typical red splash in the direction you are taking fire from. Somehow, in my estimation, Dark Energy Digital did not get this right. While the screen does show a splash of red to indicate incoming fire, it is often next to impossible to tell what direction it is coming from. Add this to the difficult-to-spot, dead-eye enemies, and you are setting yourself up for some serious frustration in locating targets before you croak. Fortunately, the automatic save points are entirely forgiving (thank you!). While the earlier platforming sections of the game zip by quickly, when the game transitions into primarily a shooter, you’ve got to slow way down, carefully attending to each gun-toting opponent before proceeding (not necessarily a bad thing). (Warning: There are a few infrequent areas where enemies continually respawn, so camping is not recommended.) Ammo is sort of scarce too, so your aim must be good, or you are left having to fiddle with the sonic rounds and hitting enemies multiple times to down them.

Regarding the sound design, there is the constant growl of water sloshing around inside the metal hull of the ship as it slowly sinks. This ubiquitous industrial white noise is especially apparent when you click over to one of the menus which silences the in-game sound effects—everything is suddenly quiet, except for a light soundtrack in the background. As soon as you click back to the game, the awful whoosh and clank of the sinking ship (with gas fires blowing out all around, electricity crackling at every turn, and the Neo Malthusian’s looping television messages) screams back to life in surround sound. Very effective, although it does tire the ears if wearing headphones.

There is a largely disparaging review of this game over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, if you know the site. The reflection piece there seems incredibly princess-like to me…I mean, the writer is complaining so vociferously about some of the most trivial inadequacies of this game, I wonder what could ever please him. The inadequacies are there, to be sure. And yes, I share some of his same major complaints. But “Hydrophobia” (like almost everything else on this blog) is one of those titles that may ask for your forgiveness and, if you give it, you’ll see what a tiny, imperfect gem it really is.