It's an age-old story. Girl meets fish. Girl loses fish. Fish needs to surround himself with a bubble of water and use impressive fluid physics to find his way home through dangerous and picturesque dreamscapes.
Wait, no. Sorry. Swimming Under Clouds from Piece Of Pie Games boasts a truly unique premise and some of the most refreshing gameplay that I've ever had the joy to experience. It's a crying shame that it was tucked away at this year's Eurogamer Expo, because it was one of the most deeply memorable games of the entire show.
The achingly beautiful visuals come courtesy of graphic designer Mikaël Aguirre (aka Orioto), who was looking for a game into which he could shoehorn his considerable portfolio. His dreamlike vistas have a charming and fluffy quality that lend themselves perfectly to an Indie platformer. Charming doesn't do it justice. Aguirre is also behind the storyline, which originally simply featured a bubble of water that had to negociate the levels. However, he decided to add a heartbreaking story (and the fish) in order to make gamers genuinely care about the adventure... and trust me, you'll want to get this fish home. Sorry, there's something in my eye.
However, don't expect that the adorable presentation means that the game itself is soft and fluffy. Swimming Under Clouds will deliver a hardcore and exciting platform experience that draws upon classics for inspiration. Aguirre explained that Sonic was a major influence, as you'll need to pick up momentum and slide along multiple routes to ensure victory and a quick completion time. The fish shrouds himself in a bubble of water that functions (at the most basic level) like Sonic's rings. It protects him from enemy attacks as well as the unbreathable atmosphere, increasing in size when players net bubble powerups and decreasing when he takes a hit. The bubble also allows the fish to slide along surfaces; which currently feels tight, realistic and responsive thanks to the excellent physics engine. Taking advantage of loops, ramps and jump combos will be a key part of the gameplay. Dynamic wind physics will also affect the experience for both the player and enemies, and savvy players will intelligently use it to devastating advantage.
Water is more than just a defensive tool. Players can opt to deplete their supply by spraying out a powerful jet that acts as extra propulsion or an offensive weapon to soak enemies or trigger switches. Sacrificing the all-important water supply against the need to deploy the jet is another deceptively deep mechanic... since the fish will be practically helpless without his protective bubble. Each of the fifty levels will feature three difficulty settings and hidden stars that provide extra points, making for some serious replayability value. Make no mistake: this is an exceptional platformer that deserves your attention even at this stage.
Swimming Under Clouds is still around 6-8 months from release... and quite frankly, I'll be counting down the days. Aguirre suggested that Piece Of Pie were courting PSN as their primary launch platform, as art games such as Flower and Flow tend to receive far greater exposure on Sony's service rather than the glutted Xbox Live marketplace. We wish them every success- and we'll keep you up to date with the latest.