Review: Hydrophobia

Xbox Live Arcade Review

Much has been made of the technical achievements which power Hydrophobia. And rightly so, there are a number of things which, behind the scenes, make this game a remarkable feat of digital wizardry. Ultimately, though, the success of the game will rely not on the technology behind it but on the narrative and game-play mechanisms which that technology facilitates.

Hydrophobia is set aboard an enormous floating city (the Queen of the World), built and managed by five large corporations seeking a way to solve the planet’s massive problems with over-population. The proposition is that, no matter how great the number of humans on Earth, technology will provide a solution.

In stark contrast to that are the Malthusians, followers of a political ideology that assumes a population cull is required in order to prolong the existence of humanity. The action kicks in when the Malthusians infiltrate and attack the Queen of the World, bent on proving their theory is correct and halting any progress made by the corporations.


Save the world, kill yourself. It’s a stark statement that is daubed on walls, projected on video screens and espoused by terrorist figureheads throughout the game. That one sentence effectively sums up the disregard for individual human life that the Malthusians hold.

The game starts in the protagonist’s (Kate Wilson) apartment. She’s an engineer with a night off to enjoy the ten-year-anniversary celebrations on the ship. But she’s a workaholic who quickly decides, much to the amusement of her boss (Scoot), that her night off is not as important as investigating why the television signal has gone down. This investigation leads to catastrophe and Kate finds herself faced with a terrorist infiltration and a sinking ship. Luckily she has a background in climbing and a comm.-link with Scoot to help her through.

For the first section of the game you are without weapons, relying on your agility to see you through some of the climbing and platforming sections which set the scene for much of what is to come. The limited contact you have with enemies must be negotiated stealthily and quickly. This introduces another of the tenets of narrative in Hydrophobia: the vulnerability. I’m sure many people will draw comparisons with Ripley in the Alien movies but it’s not quite as simple as that.

Kate’s vulnerability is a very human one. She’s not living in some far-flung space-ship avoiding aliens and using mech suits. We can easily empathise with her plight because it is believable. The technology featured in the game, from the flexible-screened MAVI to the ammunition types she eventually finds, are all things we are on the cusp of seeing in the real world. Even the population projections and the political stances are not entirely without basis in today’s reality. So, we can envisage this near-future and that makes the story all the more believable and Kate all the more sympathetic.

Your weaponry, when you attain it, consists of a pistol which is capable of firing several different types of ammunition which are suited to particular situations. Ammunition is in short supply though so you are actively encouraged to use your Sonic rounds (a kind of chargeable pulse weapon) to make the environment itself into a weapon. Your score is even multiplied based on environmental kills and combos and there are leader-boards for each act as well as an overall board to ensure that you will want to return to beat your friends’ scores.

The game’s pacing is brisk and involving. There is always another waypoint to reach or an area to move through and it never feels laboured, even though you are backtracking through previously visited areas on occasion. The AI is smart and relentless but, after an initial period of acclimatising, you will become comfortable with using the environment to even the odds a little with plenty of reliance on explosive barrels, gas leaks, electric circuits and gushing water.

Enemies will advance fast and hard on you while you’re staying in cover. Use the floating patches of oil fires to set them alight and they’ll rush you in an effort to take you with them. They’re not only largely fearless, they’re focused and intelligent. Enemies will sometimes use the explosive barrels or gas leaks against you in much the same way that you’ve been using them. There is no let up in certain sections and the listing ship, continuously sloshing water and multitude of explosions and electrical crackling really add to the atmosphere – and the pressure.

The addition of the augmented reality view that the MAVI gadget offers is cleverly done. Rather than supply you with a visor switch as in Halo: ODST or Detective Vision as in Batman: Arkham Asylum, Hydrophobia gives you a flexible screen which assists your vision and shows hidden messages. There is a clear cost/reward mechanic to this as you can’t fire a weapon, take cover or jump while the MAVI is in use. You have to choose when it’s safe to use it (you can also open doors and control CCTV with it) and when it’s best to keep it in your pocket.

It’s not all glowing praise though, on occasion the voice acting with Kate and Scoot can be a little overdone and it sometimes seems to sit too clearly in the audio mix so it can sound a little removed from the environment. While it is refreshing to hear Scoot’s Scottish accent, Mancunian enemies and Kate’s Irish lilt in a video game (without the all-too-common rush to stereotype) it might not work so well outside of Britain and Ireland.

The game ends a little abruptly. Although it is at a sensible point for the storyline it seems to cut the third act slightly short. There are rare issues with signposting too; it’s not always entirely clear where you’re heading and the map can be difficult to decipher. These small points are easily forgiven when set against the array of things that the game gets so right but it shows that there is still some room for refinement in the second episode.

Weighing in at around five to six hours for a normal difficulty run through, this game has enough narrative length and replayability to be considered alongside many modern disc-based games. The unlockable challenge room hints at further storyline developments as well as providing a horde-mode style of game-play, an extra leaderboard to compete on and just a fun area to play with the physics and those beautiful water effects.


  • Great atmosphere and emotion.
  • Stunning technology means no load times and entirely dynamic water.
  • Imaginative use of the engine to enhance game-play rather than rule it.
  • The most full-feeling experience yet available on this distribution model.


  • Voice work is a little rough in places.
  • Seems to stop very suddenly.

Hydrophobia is a really good game in comparison to all the recent examples in the genre. The water tech and lack of any sort of loading times will grab headlines but when you push those to one side there is an extremely competent game here too. It compares favourably with the full, disc-based retail games but within the download space it is completely without peers. This game has the potential to change the way we think about downloadable titles and the way publishers think about selling them to us. It would still be a bargain at twice the price.

Score: 9/10



  1. Is this coming to Ps3 at some stage?

    • It will be – not sure when yet.

  2. Wow wasn’t expecting it to score so that highly. Good read, I’m quite interested in the tech but the story seems to be my cup of tea too. Thanks for the review and the awful pun on the subheading :P

  3. Looks good, think i read edge gave it a 3!!

    • Yeah I read the same – that’s a pretty definitive difference of opinion there! I must say though just from seeing it covered on TSA and the fact it’s a budget downloadable title I struggle to see how it warrants a 3/10 (I’ve not actually read the review).

      Maybe it’s just a way to grab headlines on gaming blogs, I hate sites that give silly scores just to get their clicks up…

  4. Glad to hear it is as awesome as it looks :) Will pick this and plants vs zombies up tomorrow then

  5. There should be a section at the top of reviews which states which platform the game is available for, and which platform it was reviewed on.

    • The icon on this article IS an Xbox Live symbol. It’s also widely known that Hydrophobia is, currently, only available on the 360.

      Just saying.

      • Both of those things take some form of prior knowledge. You’d need to know what the xbox live symbol looks like to recognise it, and you’d need knowledge to know from previous reading that it was xbox only. I personally knew both of these things, but lots don’t. A simple bit of text at the top of each review would eradicate any issue. Not hard to implement, but useful.

    • It’s difficult to remember that not everyone is as ingrained in the industry as we are when we write things. Fair enough point, I’ve added a little heading text like we sometimes do for PSP reviews. Might be worth doing this for all our reviews in future.

      • Absolutely! I’ve been wanting this kind of labeling for the RSS stream as well, ever since you started doing 360 on TSA.

        Great review, btw!

  6. Looks amazing. Wonder if they’ll do any refining for the PS3 version. Can’t (but must) wait for this.

  7. Sounds great, but completely without peers? There’s some great content on XBL, so that’s a big statement. Big enough to make me want it tho.

    • There is some fantastic stuff on XBLA, and stuff I would rate as highly as this but there’s nothing actually -like- this. So I don’t mean that it’s head-and-shoulders the best thing on there, I mean that it’s unique in that space.

  8. Really glad to read the TSA review of this game. I have been following it for a while now and was looking forward to picking it up this week. I was concerned after seeing the Edge review which was scathing to say the least. My excitement has returned and I will be buying it this week.
    Thanks TSA!

  9. Wait, this got a 3 from EDGE…

    Who to trust…?

    • Grab the trial and make your own mind up :)

      • I love trails, for this kind of thing :D

      • I love trails, for this kind of thing :D

    • EDGE are normally very harsh with their review scoring ( hit-baiting anyone? )

      Also I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them… in my opinion of course.

      • Edge have been pretty drunk on their own hype for a few years now, and some of their reviews can display extreme levels of ignorance and outright stupidity(eg. Them apparently giving Valkyria Chronicles 2, a PSP game,6/10 purely because it didn’t “improve” on the original… a PS3 game).

        It saddens me to see so many people put so much stock in their opinions when really, to me, I don’t see what gives them anymore credibility than the IGNs and Gamespots of this world.

  10. So does this game has a complete story or is it gonna be episodic ?

    I heard that it was episodic then someone said it was not, so I was just wondering.

    • It’s episodic. Seems like around 5-6 hours for this one though so it’s not little chunks but a larger trilogy.

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