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AQUARIA / Bit Blot / PC
The obvious comparison for Aquaria is a blend of Metroid and Ecco the Dolphin, which is a fine one, but there's more than a passing resemblance to Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia in the music and the main weapon being homing energy shots - which is interesting because Ecclesia came out almost a year after this!
You spend the whole game underwater in a large series of interconnected caverns, playing as a mermaid girl named Naija. Initially Naija lives as a "simple creature" and just likes to relax all day in the waters near her home, but an encounter with a mysterious figure who gives her disturbing flashbacks prompts her to explore farther and wider and, of course, stumble across the sort of plot that drives action-oriented video games.
The first hour makes the game seem a bit limited and slow-paced, as Naija initially has no sort of attack ability, and is mostly limited to running away and avoiding hazards (of which there's extremely few in the opening areas anyway.) It's also initially unfocused-seeming as there's no real overarching goal presented other than "explore what's around you." Perservere to explore the reasonably-sized opening area, however, and you'll find the game's first real "dungeon", which brings with it Naija's two key powers - the ability to shoot the aforementioned energy blasts, and the ability to "bind" and carry certain objects, like rocks and shells.
From there it's almost like a Zelda game in that you spend most of the rest of your time seeking out new temples, which usually house a boss battle, and at the end of which you are imbued with a new "form" you can change into that gives you new powers and abilities. You also find recipes and ingredients scattered about the sea, you can combine items to create various healing and buffing foodstuffs.
Most of these indie games seem to have a problem with including native USB gamepad support, so it's refreshing that this one does (with no config needed whatsoever!) even though it's seemingly been designed with the mouse in mind. You can switch between keyboard, mouse and gamepad freely however, again with no config required whatsoever, so this is one better than a lot of "big company" commercial releases in that respect. The only issue with control is that Naija mostly interacts with the world by singing songs that you learn as you go along, and this requires you to bring up a menu of notes and remember a pattern while the action continues in the background. It's the one clunky aspect of the control setup, but its partially mitigated by the most commonly used powers - the various forms, and Naida's Shield and Bind abilities - being mapped to number keys 0-9.
The game is a creative combination of classic 2D elements and an interesting new take on the Metroid-Castlevania action-exploration genre. It offers roughly 20 hours of gameplay for the main quest, so it's fairly meaty, and then there's an ability to mod and easily add on other people's mods as well. Worth checking out.
Official site (demo)
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