Released September 29th by Dark Energy studios, Hydrophobia is a third-person action game with the intent of displaying the capability of water physics possible on the Xbox 360. It also claims to be a survival horror game and fun, but neither of these is completely true. Hydrophobia boasts a fantastic new engine for creating in game water effects and features but, sadly, little else. It relies far too heavily on this feature and suffered when additional features were seemingly hastily thrown in to make a game people might buy, ruining the rest of the game in the process, something I refer to as “Mirror’s Edge Syndrome.”
Hydrophobia takes place in the mid-21st century on a boat, The Queen of the World, on its tenth anniversary. You are an engineer named Kate assisted by a thickly accented Scottish man, aptly named Scoot. I’m pretty sure he mentions dilithium crystals once…maybe. On this special occasion, a group of overpopulation terrorists attacks the boat with some non-specific ill intent, screaming the battle cry “Save the world, Kill yourself!” These Neo-Malthusians, basing their claims on theories by classical economist Thomas Malthus, are the most awkward evil force in a game that I have ever come across. The idea, while novel, is so far out of left field that I doubt anyone would understand what they were against without taking a course in economics. This concept might not even be that far-fetched if the developers had at least known something about Malthus, thus preventing the generic and often religious statements by the terrorists. But, I digress. You, Kate, are trapped on a lower level of this ship and spend the entire game fighting through terrorist and water to make your escape, or drown trying.
Sadly, Hydrophobia offers little direction besides the ever present objective of Escape. Often to a painful degree. On multiple occasions, it presented a room with a puzzle with some obscure solution and, after fighting off the guards, left the player to run around for an obscene amount of time with the only direction of “Ye need to get oot of the room, Lassie.” These are only second in annoyance to rooms full of armed Terrorists. Also, you are armed only with a stun gun, with the occasional drop of specialized ammunition designed for dispatching enemies, which drop in disturbingly small quantities. The player is then free to throw themselves endlessly at the oncoming horde, dying countless times, until, after hours of obscenity filled rage, they make it through, only to die to an errant flame and be forced to start over. It is often quite frustrating and took a severe amount of dedication to finish the game and not call Bill Gates directly and demand my money back. How does it end? You can find that out in the next installment, left at the end of Hydrophobia with only a disappointing “To Be Continued…”
Let’s continue with the best feature of this game: The HydroEngine. Hydrophobia features the HydroEngine physics engine, created specifically for this Xbox Live Arcade game and designed to incorporate flowing water and other such effects with a level of realism never before seen in video games. The water effects in Hydrophobia do live up to the hype. The tangible ebb and flow of the water, which serve to impede and move the player against their will, provide an exciting experience with the water as an enemy. At least until the game forces the player to swim. The controls of Hydrophobia are finicky on land and even worse in the water. Swimming becomes a veritable feat, accomplishable only by the incredibly experienced. Though, once you get the hang of it, it’s not the worst thing in the game.
One other thing that I did like was the hacking minigame which is, in my opinion, one of the better ones. Using the two joysticks in tandem, the player must adjust the amplitude and frequency of their hacking console to match that of the device being hacked. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but given 20 seconds to match 4 different waveforms it’s a very fun experience, especially for a hacking minigame. Especially amongst the rest of the game.
On that note, Hydrophobia does manage water quite well, being pushed back by a wave of water rushing through an open door has never felt more suffocating, but this core feature of the game is overshadowed by a constant onslaught of mild to aggravating annoyances that completely detract and distract from this revolutionary concept. Hydrophobia is built on a gimmick and the rest of the game shoddily placed around it in order to appeal to the Xbox community. Had Dark Energy focused solely on the water mechanics, Hydrophobia may have been an enjoyable experience, but they didn’t. Someday, the HydroEngine may be incorporated in a different game that manages to take full advantage and showcase this awesome piece of engineering, without the overly obscure philosophical references.