Hydrophobia has a troubled history. It's being released, it's not being released. It's going to be a full retail title, it's going to be a download-only title. This kept it alive and in the media spotlight. One thing we knew for certain was that Hydrophobia was going to have nifty water effects, and before it was released in the latter half of 2010, excitement began to build gradually. Originally released for AU$20, later dropped to AU$13 and eventually put on sale for AU$6.50; it looked like a bargain waiting to be snapped up. We couldn't have been more wrong.
Players assume the role of Kate, who resides on a huge ship called the 'Queen of the World'. Poo quickly hits the fan as terrorists begin to take control and sink the sea giant, for a reason that the player is never forced to care about. It has something to do with science and gaining some secret something or other to do something with the something. The 'Malthusians' are your enemies, an organization with cult attributes comprising of bald clones wearing bandanas. There are so many problems with the story of Hydrophobia, knowing where to start is the biggest one. Everything reeks of cheapness, so each glitch makes you wonder, where was the money spent? Oh that's right, on the water.
The only saving grace for Hydrophobia is the five minute spell when you're first introduced to the physics. A single concept can turn an average experience into a really good one, but not this time. You can drown enemies by destroying doors and letting more water into an area, you can shoot barrels causing waves (why the ship is full of explosives, we do not know), you can even electrocute them. Points will be awarded depending on how you eliminate the dumb clones, but the physics engine is also a weak point. We're not experts in the laws of aqua electrocution, but when electricity hits water - people tend to fry. A section early on sees Kate walking through one of numerous boring corridors only to stumble across power cables hanging into the water. Now, logic would say that Kate dies... but for some unexplained reason, she survives. A seemingly minor detail, but when Hydrophobia is trying to sell itself based on a realistic engine, moments like these begin to detract from a title dripping with potential.
Hydrophobia was in production for three years, so our question is, what happened? The gameplay is repetitive for a start, quickly growing into monotonous garbage interspersed with mindless treks into different parts of the ship. Locations and enemies rarely change, the hacking mini-game isn't responsive enough and hit detection is amiss. The whole experience handles poorly too, Kate's animation is terrible and the controls are clunky. She moves as though her stomach is bloated; there's no sprint button and you could fall asleep while she's creeping through vents. The developer, Dark Energy Digital, has tried to mix up the gameplay with bits of action and platforming, the latter of which is among the most robotic you'll ever see. On paper, it might work, but Hydrophobia's failings are a result of awful execution and there's no excuse for that.
As for the visuals, they're far from spectacular. The water looks nice, but that's a given since there's so much of it. Explosive and electrocution effects are passable for an Xbox Live Arcade title, but this is still well off the pace when compared to the likes of Shadow Complex. Environments are another problem. Even though the ship is introduced as a luxurious place, Kate spends most of her time in the lower decks, sludging her way around poorly rendered textures and lots of grey nothingness. The level design doesn't help either, and you'll often be left wandering around searching for the next objective. A useless map and a HUD that looks as though it was ripped from a ten year old PlayStation 2 title heightens the frustration. However, it's another subtle touch that makes you question the art direction of Hydrophobia. The presentation and graphical attributes are sub-par overall, the blend of semi-realism and pure comical stupidity raises eyebrows. The characters are modelled badly with some dreadful facial expressions, but at least the anatomy is kind of, sort of, maybe acceptable. That's not the issue, it's more to do with the blood drops that are the same size as bananas. If you get hit by a bullet, Kate's back squirts out huge amounts of blood and it looks completely out of place. Hydrophobia should have chosen one style, not half and half.
As we mentioned earlier, the story is rather convoluted. This is largely due to the audio. Kate has a friend during the course of her adventure, the oddly named Scoot. The man guiding you from afar is a fat Scottish bloke. His dialogue is so muffled and slurred that you'll probably never fully understand anything he says. Players from that side of the globe will struggle too, it's extraordinarily bad and we haven't even talked about Kate's voice yet. While the actress is clearly Irish, she often tries to sound borderline Scottish and in the end, her accent is a mess. It might be forgivable if the she sounded relatively enthusiastic about the script, but like everything else in Hydrophobia, it's rough - and that's being polite. Puns and cringe-worthy dialogue are everywhere in the first hour of gameplay, and Kate's persistent refusal to pronounce the letter 'T' really begins to irk those of us with an appreciation for the English language. A less than memorable soundtrack plays in the background and some standard sound effects break up the chit chat. Genuinely, Hydrophobia's audio is beyond bad.
Dark Energy Digital patched Hydrophobia to address the issues that many reviews complained about. This particular review is based on that updated version, so if this is an improvement, the original must have been unplayable. To highlight the fact that Hydrophobia feels unfinished and downright sloppy, the story ends abruptly and without warning. Apparently, this is the first entry into a trilogy, with the sequel allowing you to control the water (a feature available in the Challenge Mode upon completion). Hydrophobia serves one purpose - to show off a water gimmick. You're paying for five minutes of enjoyment, with two hours of badly designed extras. A single session is all you need to finish it off, and with no multiplayer (maybe we're better off without it), the replay value is non-existent. Because it does barely anything with flair, it's only right that we inform you about the cold facts. When you're in a competitive market, this just isn't good enough.
In the end, Hydrophobia is little more than a tech demo showcasing a technique that could be exploited by a more talented developer. Playing around with water is a cool trick, but the foundation beneath it needs to be sturdy and rigid. Instead, we're dealing with a bucket of water sitting on top of a stool with one leg. There isn't a single redeeming feature here that will make you feel as though you're getting value for money, just download the free trial instead. Don't waste your Microsoft Points on Hydrophobia, look elsewhere or maybe buy a crazy costume for your avatar, at least that might have a bit of character.