Hydrophobia is a very ambitious game as its core mechanic revolves around the flow of water, something that developers have struggled with for many years. Bearing that in mind, many would think that Dark Energy Digital, the developers behind Hydrophobia, had bitten off more than they can chew. After all, Hydrophobia is only a downloadable title. Well, those people would be wrong.
With the game having a focus on water that's almost single-minded, the story has to follow suit. And that's why the whole game is set on a ship called Queen of the World. The ship was meant to be a bold statement for the future of mankind, but instead it falls into the hands of a fanatical terrorist group called the Malthusians.
To cut a long story short, the population of Earth is expanding too quickly and resources are becoming sparse. The Malthusians have a solution for this, kill the vast majority of humans so that they won't have to worry. It's actually a rather alarming story and it's a shame that it's not touched on a lot more, as the subject matter could have had a greater impact. Instead, it focusses more on Kate Wilson's fight to stay alive.
Being nothing more than a System's Engineer, Kate has next to no combat training, so her initial encounters with the Malthusians are tense. She can perform basic moves, such as rolls and taking cover and to be honest, these don't feel that tight. It would have also been nice to see aiming not mapped to the right-stick button. These are minor points though and they don't detract much from the gameplay experience, because full-on combat isn't really advised. In fact, going in guns blazing is a sure-fire way to end up dead very quickly.
Players are encouraged to think outside the box and use the environment to their advantage. Kate initially only has a stun pistol, but it can still cause damage to the ship's internal structure - damage which can severely hurt her adversaries. This could be simply breaking glass to knock them off their feet due to the sudden flow of water or blowing up a gas cannister. These elements can also be combined for extra effect, for example, causing a water flow and linking it up with an exploding barrel to create a swirling flame wall of death.
This is where the HydroEngine really comes in to play, as how much players interact with the environment is entirely up to them. And this is what's great, because two people could take a problem in a completely different way. Some might end up with a corridor or room completely filled with water, while others might end up with it barely up to Kate's ankles. Either scenario is just as fun though, although the former will require Kate to do a bit more swimming.
The swimming element to the game isn't that bad, but the camera can sometimes be a bit frustrating. Also, when diving or surfacing it's only possible to go in a straight line, so you have to do that action, stop, correct, and then do it again. The platforming elements, specifically the climbing, feel a bit unrefined too. It's a shame to say as well, because the water physics and what they add to the gameplay is gorgeous.
The game's presentation is quite a mixed bag. Anything associated with water is great, but anything associated with other elements isn't that great. The character models are average and Kate's animations aren't overly smooth. The voice acting is pretty good though and it's nice to hear some different accents for once. The HydroEngine just can't be understated for its technical merits - it has to be seen to be believed. The water itself perhaps isn't the most graphically superior example, but the physics behind it makes that irrelevant.
The main campaign of Hydrophobia will last around 3 hours, which is a bit disappointing. It's also planned to be episodic, so the story pretty much just ends. Nothing really gets resolved and there's a minor cliffhanger. Once finished, it's possible to go back to try and find more of the documents and objects that are scattered about the Queen of the World. There's also a harder difficulty to try out too.
On top of this, there's the Challenge mode, which pits Kate up against five waves of progressively harder enemies in what can only be described as an arena. She gets an endless supply of exploding barrels and also some new kinetic abilities which let her harness the power of the water. It's good fun and also challenging.
Hydrophobia does a lot well, but it also underachieves in some areas too. The HydroEngine is magnificent and the way it affects the gameplay is a huge technical achievement. However, the other gameplay elements, such as the shooting, just aren't up to the same standard. It's a shame, but Hydrophobia should still be checked out, if only to see the HydroEngine in action.