Fans of video games are no strangers to the old-school Lemmings franchise. These kinds of puzzle games have been around since the dawn of the industry and it's good to see that tradition alive and well with Eko Games, the developer of the PSN title, Aqua Panic! What started out as PSP title (Downstream Panic!) has now been brought to the PlayStation store. But how well does the game play and is it worth purchasing?
The story is very simple: a large number of fish have been swept out of the water by a huge hurricane and they have been stranded in various locations. It's your job to guide them safely back to the sea. Along the way, you will encounter enemies like sharks and birds who would love nothing more than to gobble down your fish companions as well as dangerous vegetation like mushrooms and thorny nuts. And that's about it.
However, the simplicity of the story line is more than made up for in the gameplay. Aqua Panic! is a classic 2D puzzle game. Each level features a maze that players must navigate the fish through in order to return them to a small opening in the water (the opening is surrounded by hungry piranha-looking fish). Failure will result in loss of fish. Different levels require a certain number of fish to be saved in order to complete it, so there is some margin for error, but it isn't very large. By using tools like bombs to open a new pathway, plants to block certain pathways, harpoons to kill enemies, etc., you will quickly find just how much thought will have to go into the successful planning and navigation of a level.
The first few levels in Aqua Panic are very simple but rest assured, that doesn't last for long. The difficulty curve ramps up exponentially in a short period of time. There are 80 levels in total, and despite the game being a downloadable title, you're looking at a considerable time sink to get through them all. The addition of gates that must be opened to allow the fish to access new areas, teleportation devices, and clouds that can hold your fish to be dumped out later will provide players with hours of puzzle solving. You'll often find yourself spending more time planning how to accomplish the level than actually initiating the plan.In earlier levels, players may not need to use all of the items available to them to complete the maze but later levels generally require all of the resources to be used, usually in a particular order. One major complaint is that the game does not allow you to zoom in or out on the level. It can be very difficult to see what's going on as you're only able to see a portion of the map at a time and are required to scroll to another section if you need. The game gives you five jokers to use. By using one, the player will be able to skip the current level and move on to the next.
One thing that's very apparent is that Aqua Panic is not a game that is meant to be finished in one sitting. Don't be surprised to see 20-30 minutes disappear while you attempt to find a strategy that actually works, and that's just for one level. You are responsible for getting as many of the 100 fish you start with to the ocean. It may sound simple, but it becomes notoriously complex.
But what about the presentation of the game? The art style is nice and bright with the colorful cartoon fish and backgrounds; imagine if the Teletubies artists decided to do some additional freelance work for Eko. It's everything you need in a good seizure inducing game. The sounds and music are cute and fun, but can quickly become annoying and distracting after the first few levels; concentrating on getting the fish through the maze was much more difficult to do after the music/sound had been yapping for a long time. It's probably easier to play the game with the audio muted.
Outside of the main adventure mode, players can play in free mode and survival mode. Free mode allows players to go back and replay previous levels that they have beaten to try and get more fish to the water. You can also collect the coins that allow you to buy more tools to help you get more finish to the water. Survival mode is a cool concept where players are given a set number of fish to save and work through level after level until none of the fish they started with remain. You can upload your score to a leader board, but other than that, there isn't any kind of multiplayer element to the game.
Aqua Panic! is certainly not a game for everyone. It takes a long time to finish, and it has cute aesthetics with decent gameplay. However, some might find it a bit monotonous, especially with regards to the music. You can often spend a lot of time and achieve very little. It's an interesting take on a classic game model that brings nostalgia to the player while also offering a new experience.