Hydrophobia Prophecy is something you don’t see very often in modern video game development. It’s the result of developers listening to what users were saying about their game and proactively addressing what was raised. More than that, it’s the introduction of a system to make that feedback and improvement cycle work even more effectively.
The Steam version of Hydrophobia Prophecy brings with it the fruits of an extensive process of refinement, tuning and, in some respects, wide-ranging change. It might be unfair to compare this game to Hydrophobia, which launched to varied reviews on the Xbox Live Marketplace last year. Sure, Prophecy starts in the same place, it features most of the same characters, systems and narrative. But the game has been almost completely restructured elsewhere.[drop]It begins, once more, with Kate Wilson waking up in her quarters on board the floating city, The Queen of the World. The same terrorist attack takes place and Kate’s friend and boss, Scoot, still guides her through most of the game. This is the first indication of divergence from the Xbox 360 version: Scoot is no longer speaking in a thick Scottish accent. That has been replaced with a charismatic North American delivery that is almost reminiscent of a game show host.
This is clearly an attempt to counteract those that complained about the voice work previously but to my mind it removes some of the charm from the game. I’m sure it will sit more comfortably with a North American audience but I somewhat enjoyed the familiarity in the voices of the leading duo and liked the knowing nod to Star Trek in having a Scottish head engineer on the ship.
As with most PC titles, the graphical appeal will depend on your hardware and settings but for me, with all settings turned up full, this game is often quite beautiful. The water ripples and washes with an almost lifelike realism, the textures are diverse and top quality and the lighting is impressive, not only in the appearance but in the way it’s used. Fire, smoke, steam and gas ripples all add to the visual spectacle and there is a diverse colour palette in use to help keep everything visually compelling throughout.
It’s not perfect, with limited numbers of enemy models and facial animations that will, both predictably and entirely understandably, fail to live up to the standards we’ve seen in recent big budget games like Uncharted 2, Enslaved and the upcoming L.A. Noire. To compare Hydrophobia Prophecy with those games is to miss the point though. What we have here is an extremely competent, very attractive, third person action game for a budget price.
One of the things that made me such a proponent of the game back when it released on the Xbox Live Marketplace was the potential I saw in it. Not what the game could become – I already enjoyed it immensely in and of itself. No, the potential I saw was in what it meant for the marketplace itself. Here was a game which matched the production values of the big budget, full retail disc, released at a quarter of the price. Wouldn’t it be just as nice to have those kind of games available alongside the artsy subtleties of games like Braid and Limbo and the visual stylings of games like Geometry Wars and Outland, all for a similar price?
Hydrophobia was (and still is) the only original third person traversal and combat game on the XBLM that brings new mechanics, systems and visual effects. The Steam version builds further on that by upgrading the visual fidelity and adding new mechanics to the core of the game which were previously only on display in the unlockable challenge room.
The progression of the game is altered completely too, with new areas moving you more swiftly through the puzzles and keeping combat and traversal to the fore. The new waypointing system (which can be assigned to always show on the in-game HUD or only via the MAVI device at the start of the game) leads you by the hand and should silence those who found the lack of glaringly obvious breadcrumbing in the game’s original release at odds with many modern games.[drop2]In addition, there is a whole new ending which allows for the use of the hydro-kinetic powers Kate acquires later in the game and gives us the opportunity to engage in a large-scale, if somewhat formulaic, boss battle. These powers, first seen in the challenge room, add another layer to the gameplay but are initially difficult to control. On-screen tutorials are displayed to offer some assistance and I personally enjoyed the mirroring of the character’s shock at her newfound powers with my own clumsy ability to control them.
I always considered Hydrophobia to be a wonderful game. It was not without its issues, certainly, but in the downloadable space it was (and still is) unmatched in terms of goal and style. The Steam version (and the upcoming PS3 version) counteracts many of the things that others found to complain about and, in doing so, it would have been easy to make a bit of a mess of things. Luckily, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
I will lament the dumbing down of the puzzle sections and I already miss the originality of a lead team who were more human and familiar, if not professional, than most but on the whole, this version of the game will have a much broader appeal. The addition of the Darknet feedback system is a clear indication that the developers are keen to hear more from their users and to continue to support the game long into the future.
Essentially a feedback system, Darknet allows you to vote up or down certain aspects of the game at any point via the pause menu. That data, along with information about where you were in the game and other pertinent indicators, is sent to the developers so they can gain a broad overview of the areas and aspects which are proving popular and which elements of the game they might want to assess for future improvements. It offers something which is often claimed but rarely acted upon: communication between developers and consumers that targets positives and negatives and enables them to be acted upon.
Darknet is one of the impressive technological feats included by Dark Energy Digital but let’s not forget that it joins the thoroughly impressive dynamic water technology and the Infinite Worlds engine which is, to those who take the time to understand it, something that might have a huge impact on games development in the future. Those features were present in Hydrophobia’s original release but their presence today still feels like it’s a step ahead of similar technology.
- Genuinely exciting setting on a ship that is exploding around you.
- More finely tuned progression and natural ending point.
- Great attention to gamer’s wishes and willingness to do more with Darknet.
- Often looks visually arresting.
- Voice work is still not great and has perhaps even lost a bit of charm.
- Simplification of puzzles and signposting means it doesn’t take long to finish.
Seven months later and on a system that has a much larger catalogue of downloadable titles, Hydrophobia Prophecy still manages to feel like it offers something that’s not readily available anywhere else. It’s a shame that Dark Energy Digital felt the need to simplify some of the puzzles and ease the player’s progress through the game but that might lead to a wider acceptance of a game that is well worth a look.[boxout]Hydrophobia Prophecy takes what was already a great accomplishment, gives it a quick nip and tuck and then adds an extra layer of consideration for the player. It’s like the chocolate sprinkles on your cappuccino, the cream on your cake or the gravy on your roast. A great third person action game with some truly innovative technological advances and production values to match most disc releases for an almost unbelievable price.
We’ll have more information on the Infinite Worlds system, used to create Hydrophobia Prophecy, later this week. We’ll also be taking a closer look at the Darknet feedback system this week.