It’s colourful, it’s mind-bending, it’s going to remind you of that awesome LSD trip you had that one time, it’s got the one-more-go factor, it’s going to make you throw your controller across the room, and if you’re not already a smoker, this will probably get you to start. Welcome to Aqua Panic.
The best way I can describe this game is as a sort of Lemmings vs Loco Roco, with the colours of Finding Nemo and a funky house soundtrack with chipmunks overlaid on it.
The aim of the game is to navigate your way down a series of vertical levels, controlling the flow of water from the top, catching the fish in the water streams and guiding them to safety. Sounds simple? It isn’t.
When you start the game, the difficulty curve is very smooth and well-structured, with one-screen tutorials introducing each new gameplay mechanic between levels. At first, all you’ll have to do is blow up chunks of landscape with bombs, or block the water’s path with flowers (similar to exploders and blockers in Lemmings). The fish come out of the same tap as the water, and you can more or less consider them one and the same. You don’t have a character as such – you click on the map with the cursor to perform an action. However, this simplicity quickly changes.
Each level has 100 fish, and you have to save a varying minimum amount depending on the level. The first 15 levels are fairly trivial, but once you hit about level 20 or so, the difficulty ramps up quickly and you soon realise that sometimes you need to make the water go in a different way to the fish. Enemies are waiting to eat your little fishies, yet they are often placed strategically close to turbines you need to pour water through to open a passage elsewhere in the level. There are stop valves, automatic valves, flowers which spawn in specific places after a specific time to block a path, indestructible rocks, eggs which can be used to fill holes or make water overflow, and so on. With just three tools at your disposal – bombs, flowers and the harpoon for taking out enemies – the deceptively simple-looking levels become rapidly more challenging.
The levels look almost randomly slapped together, but in fact the design is nothing less than ingenious. This is not a case of, set up everything right and you’re done. You will have to chain quite a few actions with deft timing to guide those fish down safely, and with ground surfaces and chasms created with just a certain height or depth to make a particular route easy or very difficult, you will be replaying the later levels many times to perfect your strategy. Sometimes you will, for example, have to carefully adjust valves repeatedly to avoid the water level getting high enough to wake up a nearby sleeping enemy.
Often it is best just to start the level and see where everything goes to get a grasp of what you need to do. Once you’ve figured out the right strategy, you’ll probably save some but not enough of the fish. Then you can work on your timing. So the process of finishing a level is actually somewhat multi-layered in approach.
So, the game is solid. The graphics are lovely, simple and crisp. The interface is very well-designed for console use, and the menus are simple and functional. The sound is amusing at first but the music will drive you bananas after a while; fortunately it does change every so many levels.
Besides the main adventure mode described above there is also Free Play mode (play any level) and two different survival modes, one with sequential levels, one random. These are unlocked as you proceed through adventure mode, along with bonus levels and extras every so often.
I am not sure if it is actually possible to save 100 fish on every level and I’d quite like to hear from developers Eko about that. The help states that the extras can help you to save more fish but I wasn’t able to experiment with that in time for this article. It’s not a problem, but you’ll definitely need a lot of time on your hands if you’re looking for the perfect score.
There are, however, a few problems. By far the biggest issue is that the cursor changes colour depending on the selected tool, and as the backgrounds are so bright and varied using every possible colour at full saturation, it can be hard to see the cursor, especially when it is green to place flowers. In that case it can be almost impossible to see and many times on my 42in HDTV I was frustratedly waggling the left analog stick trying to see where it was, which can make you lose a time-sensitive level. Less of a problem but also quite significant is that, even on such good equipment, the red text for how many fish have died so far, and the white on green text telling you how many uses you have remaining of each item is very difficult to read at times. A different choice of font and background colours would solve this.
Both of these problems are easy to patch, and they have a not insignificant negative impact on the gameplay, so I would definitely like to see some colour/size options added.
Aqua Panic is a single-player only affair with no multi-player or online play – however it wouldn’t make sense anyway so this isn’t a problem. There are online leaderboards, and while the global leaderboards worked fine, in my copy the friend leaderboard caused my PS3 to crash every single time I tried to open it. Hopefully this will be patched too – it is a minor issue.
Those of you who have played Lemmings on the PS3 may be concerned that the interface can’t match up to a PC. Don’t worry – Aqua Panic’s controls are slick and responsive, and you’ll have no problem whizzing around. Some actions also don’t require pinpoint accuracy, which is a plus on a console game of this type.
Regarding the length, it took me about 3 hours to get 25% through the game – however at least an hour of that was spent on the last 3 levels I finished, and I am a puzzle veteran, so I suspect the full game will take quite a while to dominate.
- Lots of levels, will take plenty of time to complete
- Excellent, easy to use interface
- Lush colourful graphics, good overall presentation
- Has the ‘one more go’ factor when you get stuck on a level
- Significant cursor visibility issues
- Difficulty curve is smooth at first but gets suddenly quite tough
- Patience is required: you will get frustrated
Like poker and chess, the rules of Aqua Panic are easy to learn, but the art of winning takes a long time to master. There aren’t many puzzle-slash-action games of this type on PSN, and if you like the solo gameplay experience, at £7.99 Aqua Panic represents good value. It has some flaws that would benefit from being addressed, but overall, this is a charming and entertaining little game.
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