XBLA Review: Hydrophobia

Hydrophobia has been billed as "A Digital Tsunami of Epic Proportion". Whenever we see the word "epic" in a description, we are always somewhat skeptical. In this case, however, there are few things more epic than the situation the characters in Hydrophobia are in.

In the beginning of the game, the character awakens and the player learns that several years ago, the world was flooded, wiping out much of the population. To take refuge, Kate, the main character, has joined thousands of other people on an enormous, city-sized ship called The Queen of the World. Kate decides to go out and partake in the "Party of the Century" to celebrate the anniversary of the ship itself.

Unfortunately, things go the way that they usually do during big celebrations in video games, that is, they don't quite go as expected. Rather than fireworks and fun, Kate is treated to a full-blown terrorist attack that threatens to plunder the ship and it's citizens into the overgrown ocean. While the ship slowly goes down, it looks like it's up to Kate to save the floating albatross.

It turns out the terrorists are operating on a fanaticized version of social theorist, Thomas Malthus' theory on population growth. With this, the terrorists operate on the idea that humanity has over-populated the earth to the point that the planet cannot support the race through its resources. Thus, the group has sprawled their slogans, "Save the World - Kill Yourself" among them, across the ship, creating an eerie setting.

As you play through the title, you'll notice numerous similarities between this game's style of play and that of another revolutionary title, Mirror's Edge. To get from point A to point B, Kate must free-run, climb and jump from ledges and ladders. Often times, she'll be doing so with obstacles closing in on her, such as an elevator that is about to see it's brakes fail while she's in the shaft, so she's pressed for time as well.

The Mirror's Edge style of gameplay is present in the combat as well. Throughout the adventure, Kate will encounter several of the Malthusian terrorists, all of which are heavily armed. Even later on, when Kate receives a pistol, she is still out-matched and out-skilled. Therefore, she must take roundabout methods to take out the patrolling enemies.

Since Kate must utilize various tactics, such as defeating enemies by destroying environmental hazards surrounding them. This is where the game shines. The water flows in an incredibly natural manner, which is unlike anything we've seen in any game before. Water can sweep you or your enemies away, so you must plan very carefully when attempting to take out enemies.

Despite the great aspects of the game, there are definitely a few misfires. The navigation, while not terrible, does feel a little jerky at times. Running and jumping will sometimes leave the player feeling a little out of control, which will cause a few deaths throughout the story. The free-running is also nowhere near as controlled or fluid as seen in other titles that use similar mechanics, like Assassin's Creed or the aforementioned Mirror's Edge.

Aside from a few strange textures and some pretty bad voice-acting, the presentation in Hydrophobia is among the best offered on the Xbox Live Arcade. The water, as mentioned before, looks and feels as good as it has in any title, retail, downloadable, or otherwise. The environmental damage, which also plays a big role in the title, works as well as one could hope.

Throughout the story, players will also put a device called a MAVI to good use. The MAVI, which acts kind of like a highly advanced iPad, will put several detective style tools at Kate's disposal. The device will be used to hack locked doors and computers, detect useful objects within the environment, and even scan ahead to alert Kate of danger. The device is very useful, but can feel like a bit of a burden at times, as some of the situations feel a bit forced.

In addition to the story, there are a few things that will add to the replayability, including a pretty cool challenge mode, which rewards players for keeping their chain multiplier up and using the room's hazards to their advantage. Also, while you're running through the campaign, you'll be coming across several different types of collectibles, including quotes from Thomas Malthus, which will help the player to better understand the motives of the social theorist.

Overall, Hydrophobia is one of the top Xbox Live Arcade titles of the past several months, but there are a few key things keeping it from being in the running for Downloadable Game of the Year. With a slightly improved free-running engine, as well as a better voice acting team, the game could've been one of the best titles available for the Xbox Live Arcade. Instead, what we get is a satisfying adventure that capitalizes upon the theme of a reluctant hero to the fullest. Hydrophobia is worth the purchase price of $15 if you are truly looking for something a little different, yet slightly familiar.