What do you get when you take the Super Metroid/Castlevania labyrinth dungeons, the Ocarina of Time musically themed action and puzzles, and add in about 200 billion gallons of sea water? You get Aquaria, an indie game released in late 2007 that has gotten a second wind in the Humble Indie Bundle.
You play as Naija, an Aquarian with no memories who spends her days roaming her home waters. Visited by a ghostly vision, she is inspired to explore the outer waters of Aquaria to discover the truth behind the ruin and devastation that engulfs her home. The story is communicated almost entirely through voice-over, and Naija has plenty to say. Between lamenting the loss of a great city, marveling at underwater vegetation, and even being self conscious about her appearance, Naija never stops talking. Thankfully, Jenna Sharpe's voice talents are well suited for the role, and never once becomes irritating.
Exploring the depths of Aquaria is nothing short of an absolute pleasure. With locales ranging from decrepit cathedrals, mechanical temples, to vibrant forests of kelp, developer Bit Blot treats you to a wide array of beautiful scenery. Not just beautiful, but super HD as well. Running in 1600x1200, even when the camera zooms in, Aquaria never loses a smidgen of detail. Accompanying the excellent visuals is a score that manages to be both haunting and charming, perfectly capturing the mood of each location Naija travels to.
In order to make her way around the expansive depths, Naija makes use of multiple forms (not unlike Symphony of the Night's fog, wolf, bat, etc.) that grant her different abilities. Some abilities are primarily for fighting, such as Naija's energy form, but each one provides a useful technique to solve puzzles.
Song Form (base): Allows Naija to sing. Can solve puzzles, pull objects, or switch her to other forms.
Energy Form: Grants Naija the ability to shoot fiery blasts.
Beast Form: Naija can swim against strong currents, and eat creatures, some of whom give her unique projectiles.
Forest Form: Naija gains the ability to shoot plants from her hands; charge up to shoot a spiky column.
Sun Form: Dark places are illuminated while Najia is in this form.
Fish Form: Travel into places too small for Aquarians to reach.
Spirit Form: Travel past dangerous obstacles unharmed.
Dual Form: It has to be charged, but Dual Form unleashes the most devastating attack in the game.
Where in other games, these abilities would be used once and then never again, Aquaria forces you to use your head and switch back and forth between forms constantly in order to become successful. This keeps gameplay fresh, and provides for discovering fun, unique ways to take out your enemies, which is a good thing as the endgame area is challenging.
Doubly fun is Aquaria's cooking system. Health is recovered by eating food, and food is created by cooking ingredients discovered across the ocean. While Naija discovers recipes that direct you to successful concoctions, you can mix and match on your own as well (but not always with tasty results).
If I had one gripe with Aquaria, it would be the same issue I have with recent Castlevanias; the backtracking. Aquaria will constantly force you to backtrack for long periods of time (one boss battle actually shoots you out of a temple if you screw up, and you have to head through the entire place a second time just to get back). While there are warp turtles to cut the time down, a large portion of my playthrough was spent in travel. And as unique each area is from the others, there is little variation inside the zones, leaving you with little to no landmarks to guide your way. Be prepared to check your map. Often.
Once the main game is finished, there is still plenty of Aquaria left to play. The expanse of the ocean features many secret areas and goodies, such as a race track, “Simon Says” minigame, and a difficult climb far beyond the ocean surface. As much as I have already found, I can't shake the feeling that I have missed some content.
Aquaria does nothing to hide the fact that it is a Metroidvania game: save coffins are replaced by save crystals, warp gates are replaced by ancient turtles, familiars replaced by pets (and buddy, Li), etc. But despite the fact that Aquaria does little in the way of innovation, it remains fun by keeping to tradition and presenting a tried and true formula in a new way.
It's impossible not to have fun with this game. It just does so much right.