Platforms: XBLA [Get Demo/Download]
Developer: Games Distillery
Publisher: Xbox Live Arcade
Naval warfare and steampunk belong together. The age of steam populated the world's waterways with epic and beautiful steam-powered ironclads, and finally we have the chance to take them for a spin. Aqua throws you into the leather galoshes of dashing (and British, huzzah!) Captain Grey as he leads his trusty old cruiser and ragtag crew into battle against an evil empire. The world of Aqua is full of art deco warships, pomp, circumstance and good old fashioned high-seas heroism... but there's something that it's ashamed of. You see, despite all of it's pretentions to the contrary: it's an XBLA twinstick shooter...and there are already plenty of those knocking about. Luckily, it's a damn good one.
The dual-stick shooter is XBLA's most prevalent (and dare I say, lazy) genre- so even novice players will soon get their sea legs. You've got a selection of weapons and ships to throw down on the enemy fleets including the standard gatling gun, cannon and flamethrower... so far, so familiar. However, the addition of torpedoes, mines and a boost feature add a small amount of strategy to the proceedings- as retreating from engagements and deploying minefields can prove far deadlier than engaging your foes head on. Enemy and art design is excellent, with submerged, shielded and airborne foes requiring different tactics to defeat.
However, Aqua goes the extra mile to set itself apart from its twinstick peers. A selection of collectible ships and upgrades allow you to tool up to suit your mission and play style- as well as making you emotionally invest in your stalwart little battlecruiser. More impressively, several missions allow you to take along squads of allies with distinct and interesting abilities- for example: Sieger units can bring the rain on armored defences whereas healing squads can prolong the life of both you and your allied fleets. These allies can be controlled from an intuitive drop-down menu and provide surprisingly effective support.
Repetition can kill an shooter stone dead, but Aqua does a great job at switching up the pace. Whilst you'll spend the majority of your time fighting swarms of enemies in large arenas, you'll also engage in a number of different missions and hazard-filled obstacle courses. Highlights include defending an arctic submarine factory, dodging a hail of artillery shells and sea snakes while advancing towards an howitzer battery and sneaking through a prototype facility using guile and a healthy supply of stun mines. The sheer number of different objectives and hazards make Aqua feel like a full-fledged naval shooter that just happens to control with two sticks- and elevates the action above the glut of twinstick shooters already on XBLA.
In terms of presentation, Aqua is a mixed bag. Whilst the water effects are top notch (as you'd expect from a shooter that takes place entirely at sea), the explosions and particle effects would embarrass a PS1 title. There's also a noticeable amount of screen tearing and slowdown in mid-mission cutscenes. Most noticeably, the voice acting is absolutely appalling- seriously, the frequent preppy status reports delivered by your loquacious ship's engineer will set your teeth on edge every time. Having said that, this is an 800 point XBLA title... so kudos to Games Distillery for actually including full VA in the first place. You can't judge them too harshly considering that they could have easily just stuck with text subtitles and callouts.
Besides, the hammy VA actually works. Aqua's story is told through an attractive animated comic book- and that's exactly the atmosphere that Games Distillery was going for. Aqua delivers a cheesy tale of high action and swashbuckling derring-do that feels ripped straight out of classic British comic books, and it's hard not to be swept right along with the Saturday morning cartoon vibe. I'd make a joke of getting caught up in it's wake, but I'm a professional.
One of the biggest disappointments is the multiplayer. Aqua offers two-player local skirmish and competitive race modes, but the handful of maps won't provide you with anything more than a brief distraction. Four-player waterborne combat would've really kicked this title up a notch... and up a point or two.
Oh, and before I wrap up I have to mention that Aqua features the best unlockable Avatar Award to date. Completing the first mission will net you a full Imperial Admiral's outfit (complete with a matching hat once you've polished off a difficult boss). My virtual self has never looked more dashing, and frankly I wish that more games would offer unique and interesting avatar awards beyond the odd T-Shirt or hoodie. Brava, Aqua.
- Solid Twinstick Action with light RPG elements
- Squads, upgrades and mines add a surprising amount of depth
- Best. Avatar Award. Ever.
- Horrible voice acting (until you get used to it)
- Weak explosions and particle effects
- Skirmish and multiplayer modes are extremely limited
The Short Version: Aqua is a solid twinstick shooter that provides an enjoyable cruise through the dangerous high seas. Sure, you can find cheaper twinstick options on XBLA (the budget Assault Heroes, for one); but Aqua's campy story, visuals, upgradeable boats and skirmish mode more than justify its price tag. Frankly, they could've gotten away with charging 1200MSP for this one. To quote the Lonely Island: I never thought I'd be on a boat.