Bit Blot's 2D side-scrolling adventure game Aquaria [$4.99] for the iPad is a gorgeous and well-produced title with a sharp emphasis on world-building and character growth. It's good, and I think the reason why it strikes me as such a quality download has more to do with its atmospheric allure than anything else. Aquaria begs you to explore with every ounce of its being by consistently introducing mechanical novelties, alien setpieces, fascinating creatures, and drip-feeding a not-quite-but-totally convoluted story that keeps you thinking that you're on the precipice of figuring out what's going on with your mercreature in the game's beautiful underwater world. It has a few minor problems, though.

One of the bigger missteps in Aquaria is tied to the limitations of its new platform. Indie developer Bit Blot and its partners have masterfully replaced the cursor with finger, allowing for complete character movement without virtual pads. But the shooting and "singing" components? Those require virtual buttons and that sticks out. Also, when these actions are coupled with the need to evade, you may inadvertently start playing Finger Twister instead of Aquaria.

For the most part, control isn't a huge problem. Aquaria's world has its share of danger and the occasional boss fight, but as a whole it's more of an ambient, leisurely experience that's more centered on exploration of its lovingly crafted environments. It is somewhat telling where the priorities reside, actually, just by how routine (in contrast to the exploration) and clumsy the fighting parts tend to feel.

The art in Aquaria, in particular, is captivating and subtle. Bit Blot doesn't beat you over the head with concentrated "look at me" moves pointing out the ridiculous level detail and quality. On the other hand, the writing and music (as well-produced as it is) are pretty over-the-top, giving the overall experience an artsy-fartsy kind of tone.

Song, by the way, is a big part of the experience. You play as a mercreature who, one day, begins a quest to uncover the past of this world. Your 'weapon,' initially, is music that can conjure various abilities, including shielding as well as the ability to lift heavy objects or turn your mercreature into a fire-slinging demon.

You pick the notes to songs that summon these powers, kinda like how you played the ocarina in Ocarina of Time. The core difference is the visual representation of the notes, all of which seem to have a connection a specific element. Puzzles all subtly require a knowledge of what's at your disposal and often challenge you to think about combinations or around what you have. Environments usually lay down a heaping of clues, which helps and doesn't necessarily rob you of grand "a-ha!" moments.

Let's talk about the genre for a second because, in a strange twist, it's one of the more frustrating and refreshing things about the entire experience for me.

Aquaria is a Metroidvania set in a fantastic sea. The genre revolves around gating you, keeping you away from certain areas until you receive an item, song, or spell that can get you into it. Bit Blot adapts and adheres to these conventions particularly well, and its execution keeps the experience consistently fresh. It's what pushes the narrative, makes the atmosphere pop and sets the table for all of Aquaria's experiences, creatures, novelties, puzzles, and exploration -- you know, the stuff I was gushing about.

In a cruel twist, this is why Aquaria can be frustrating. When you get stuck, everything slows to a crawl as you search, re-search, and search again for that one single missing thing to get you past the next gate.

Also this gating, and your subsequent laser-rocket desire to move past these barriers, obscures some of the finer elements of the game. Like, the cooking system, which allows you to take bits of "loot" or food you recover from enemies or plants in the world and morph them into something that boosts the stats of your character.

But at end of the day, Aquaria is overwhelmingly refreshing. It's one of the handful of games on the App Store that you could call complex while not subsequently pointing out an elaborate and infinitely tweakable RPG sub-menu or sub-system that has a hand in all the on-screen action. Sure, it has a control problem and, yeah, maybe the gating can be nerve-racking at times, but when you're clicking with the game there's nothing quite like the experience Bit Blot is offering here. It's so well-produced and offers such a beautiful and compelling world, that I easily forgive its shortcomings. You probably will, too.


Ed. Note: Images in this review are from the PC version, which are basically identical to the iPad game but without all the text found in the screenshots on iTunes. (Revision update to clear up some wording, too.)

TouchArcade Rating

  • himanshu

    i like such arty platformers. NyxQuest was a similar, simple yet engaging experience. This has the exploration element thrown in as well. Which is always good.

    Super-lame icon though.

    • Jay

      Haha, yeah, that icon *is* pretty lame. 

  • DotComCTO

    I find this review somewhat confusing. Brad says we can think of the game, "as a pretentious Metroid-vania based in a fantastic sea", but then finds the game, "refreshing", "complex and entertaining", "beautiful" and "engaging"; we should, "go grab it, already."

    Now, when I think of pretentious, I view that in a negative way; it implies that the game is trying to be more than it actually is. As a reader, that turns me off to the game right away. Yet, all the other comments are great. Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive to the use of "pretentious" in this review? Maybe I'm being "pretentious"?!   🙂

    Regardless, I bought the game yesterday, and I think it's great fun. It's a tad "crash" on my iPad 1, but good fun nonetheless and certainly pretty to look at.

    • Infinite Ammo

      Hi! I'm one of the developers of Aquaria. I'm curious if you close other Apps and restart your iPad if your crashes go away?

      • DotComCTO

        I did just that last night - including a full reboot of the iPad. The game worked for a bit, but crashed again a bit into the game (transitioning into the next area the game loads up after you learn how to "sing"). I restarted the game and it worked fine.

        If you send me a PM, I can get you the crash log.

      • Anonymous

        I also had serious crash issue (iPad 1 IOS 5), it wouldn't load my autosave.  Crashed every time even after a reboot.  The autosave was the very second map after you start a new game.

        Awesome game though.  Totally loving it.  Since I only had to do the first map over again it wasn't a big deal (if it happened much later I'd be less forgiving 😉

    • Brad Nicholson

      I think you're reading into that word a way too much. The writing and overall story in particular, as well as some of the mechanical stuff like the Sing To A Flower thing, simply strike me as having that attempt-to-be-more-cultured-than-what-they-are kind of quality to them.

      • Jay

        The funny part is that, when I was reading the review and came to "artsy-fartsy", I thought, "what he really means is pretentious - I wonder why he didn't just use that word."

        I think you were right-on with "pretentious" in describing it.  It seems like they put a lot more work into the game than was really needed.  Take a game like Asteroids - you can add real-time physics and lens flares, but it's not going to change the gameplay. 

        And just because something may be pretentious, that's not a strong reason to dislike something, all things considered. 

        But some people will think "pretentious" and to them it means that they must HATE it.  There's no gray area for them, it's either a perfect experience or it's horrible and they hate it. 

        Um, just my $.02  🙂

    • cowgba

      Since there seems to be some confusion among the commenters here, pretentious is not the same thing as "artsy" or "high-brow." People tend to think of it as being a negative thing because it's typically used negatively, and for good reason. Calling something pretentious suggests, by definition, that it's trying to come across as more artistic, intellectual or cultured than it actually is. So I'm with DotCom on this one, I also question the use of the word pretentious in this review.

      I also forgot that my Twitter avatar is a shattering wine glass, which I find hilarious considering the subject being discussed.

  • Chris Aanerud

    Awesome game. Odd review.

    And yes, I wish they'd chosen a different icon as well. Although this one is rather striking.

  • CopTop1

    the game looks pretty awesome to me....reminds me of Ecco the dolphin

  • Anonymous

    I find the game fantastic. Compared to the mindless dribble that is constantly bombarding us in this ecosystem, it is so wonderful to play a fleshed out well designed game. Some say artsy-fartsy, I say artistic design.

  • Michael A. Robson

    This game is still salvageable buy you have to change the main chararcter... there's no animation. Maybe make the main character a fish or something, but..those legs kicking around, it just looks out of place.

    • Michael A. Robson

      Oh, the game is already done? Uh.. oops. That's a shame.

      • Anthony Marsh

        The game has been "done" for years.

  • Anonymous

    Great game im loving it. I was surprised by this review until i saw these words: by Brad Nicholson...then it all makes sense.

    • Derek Traver

      Surprised by what? the 4.5/5.0 aka 9/10? Is that bad or something? Or is your brain incapable of comprehending a reviewer with enough self-awareness and control to be able to point out some subjective issues that didn't resonate with him personally, but maintained enough objectivity to still score it fairly?

      • Anonymous

        Surprised that game was labelled as pretentious and artsy-fartsy and still got a good review. People told me in the forums that Brads reviews and ramblings were all over the place, one google search seemed to confirm that.

        Can your brain comprehend that Derek?

  • Brian Wiggins

    Got to say I was disappointed by the 4.5/5 score. Should have easily been a 5. This is one of the biggest most feature rich games on the iPad bar none.

    Also the reviewer got it wrong. Combat doesn't require the virtual buttons and can be accomplished just as well if not better by turning them off. You can steer with one finger and tap anywhere with the second to aim/ shoot. This makes aiming with some forms and hitting certain enemies a ton easier since it unlinks movement direction with shot direction.

  • Anonymous

    Tried it, bah. They say it has 20 hours of gameplay. they just forgot to say 18 of those are aimlessly swimming around looking for something to happen. Aquaria is all about backtracking and not knowing where to go next and "explore". I'd rather watch my new trees in my backyard grow. A 2/5 from me.

    • Brian Wiggins

      Playing straight through the main storyline I got about nine and a half hours. The rest will indeed come from exploring and finding things.

Aquaria Reviewed by Brad Nicholson on . Rating: 4.5