Twin-Stick Shooters and bullet-hell games are well known to today's gamers, but what happens when Naval Warfare is also thrown into the mix? Aqua is the answer. This Xbox Live Arcade title is the first game to be developed by Games Distillery, a fairly new team that has yet to prove themselves in today's gaming market.
Aqua follows the story of Captain Benjamin Grey, an elite military officer of the Emperean fleet who has just returned victorious from the Gothean War. Joined by his newly appointed Engineer, Polly Edison, Grey decides to search for treasure hidden among the wreckage left behind from battles past and in doing so discovers much more than he bargained for. The Gotheans are back, and this time they have new found technology to not only start the Gothean War all over again, but to ensure victory as well. It is up to Captain Grey to quell the Gothean uprising before it gets out of hand using only his ship, his crew and the few remnants of the Emperean fleet. The story is hardly original but it does tie the levels together well and also features a few likeable characters, it's good enough considering there are a lot worse examples out there.
The gameplay is fairly simple, players take control of Grey's ship with the left stick and shoot with the right, it's this simple control scheme that makes twin-stick shooters a joy to pick up and play. Grey's ship however has more tricks up its....porthole? The ship can also fire torpedoes with the right trigger and lay mines with the left trigger. These weapons are not imperative to use but make things a whole lot easier when faced with tougher opponents in larger numbers. Later on in the game, players will have access to three different ships, each boasting different pros and cons, more powerful weaponry, upgrades and a squad of ships to accompany them. It's these choices given to players that truly make this game great, as more powerful items are spread evenly throughout the levels to keep the gameplay challenging and fun.
The world of Aqua is very beautiful, that is when not being shot at. The water effects are great, certainly not the best, but they are believable. Lighting is used very well in this game, from the glimmering waves, to the full blown environment getting a make-over. Although textures are hard to come by, considering the game is set solely on the water, landscapes and architecture are very fitting in Aqua, the steampunk setting and design of the ships are very believable in the world that Games Distillery have created. Aqua does a very good job of making each level feel fresh and new. Despite the gameplay being centered around sailing through water all the time, the game hardly feels repetitive or boring.
On top of the beautiful environments, Aqua has hidden collectables throughout the game; some with beneficial properties and others not so much. Upgrades for Grey's ship are scattered throughout the levels but these are mainly collected as part of the story so players can compete against the tougher enemies and bosses found later in the game. Treasures are also scattered through various levels but don't really seem to serve a purpose - there's just an achievement if all of them are collected. Unlockable cards are also collected throughout the game but they only show the enemies and allies that have been seen in the game. Descriptions of each ship can be a means of finding weaknesses to certain ships but nothing else.
The game also features multiplayer to allow a friend to join in on some of the action, but unfortunately the multiplayer is restricted to the skirmish and chase modes. Skirmishes require players to fight waves upon waves of enemies until their ships lose all three of their lives. Essentially this is the game's co-op mode; it's a short and sweet experience providing both an enjoyable and challenging experience. Chase mode is basically a check point race between players with the added ability of using mines and torpedos to hinder each other. Players gain access to these weapons by killing enemies on the map. These modes are fun to play but the multiplayer is local only which means both players need to be on the same console, no Xbox Live here. These modes may keep players occupied for a while (at least until they get the achievements) but it soon becomes a repetitive experience as there are only three maps for each mode.
Although twin-stick shooters are nothing new, Aqua certainly is. Its distinct steampunk setting and environments breathe new life into an old genre that hasn't been re-envisioned since Geometry Wars. Aqua may be slower than most bullet-hell games but it is just as fun. Sinking enemy ships with a distinct variety of weaponry is very satisfying to say the least. There is a lot of fun to be had with Aqua. It has easy to learn controls and solid gameplay, the only downside would be the few extremely challenging sections and the limited multiplayer.