Hydrophobia isn't like any games I've played before, but that doesn't exactly make it special either. I found it to be quite fun most times, but spent a larger percentage of the play-through trying to alleviate a headache and prevent myself from flipping over a desk. Despite what the synopsis and information reads, Hydrophobia isn't a survival-action game; it's actually just an action styled game with platforming elements as well as light, ill-mannered combat. In addition to this false advertising, the title of the game also has nothing to do with the fear of water, which is the basis on which the game is built. Aquaphobia is the correct term for the fear, while Hydrophobia does reference a fear of water, but formed as a symptom of rabies. So unless the protagonist has rabies, the game isn't looking too good in terms of categorizing and marketing...but I digress.
Announced over five years ago, the game was finally released in 2010 after a long time of development, indecisiveness, and thumb-twiddling; unfortunately, it was released as an arcade game on the Xbox Live Marketplace and later released in a similar respect for the PC and on the Playstation Network. Hydrophobia follows a young woman named Kate Wilson, a systems engineer aboard the Queen of the World, a city-sized luxury ocean vessel, built by a group of corporate giants known as the Five Founding Fathers, which proves to be the general and only location in the game. At the beginning of the game, the craft is bombed by a group of fanatical terrorists known as the Malthusians—named after political economist Thomas Malthus who predicted that population growth would one day outpace agricultural production, returning society to a subsistent level of existence. Hydrophobia starts off by throwing players right into the action without much character introduction or story explanation, leaving most of it to be generalised guesswork. Kate is accompanied through an earpiece by her good friend and boss, Scoot, a kind fellow with an overdeveloped and often times fake-sounding Scottish accent.
Hydrophobia's main selling point is the rather impressive fully dynamic and free-flowing water, which serves as more of an antagonist than the terrorists that Kate will face soon after starting the game. I found it to be most exhilarating when water levels are building in adjacent rooms and cracks in glass cause the water to realistically spurt out, while breaking glass and opening the door to a flooded room will cause the water to come gushing out, spilling into the hallway and into any nooks and crannies. I've never seen such realistically dynamic water in any video game before, so being able to witness it in a game even as low-key as Hydrophobia really gives one hope for future utilization in gaming. Without the brilliant water physics, Hydrophobia would be a pretty standard action game, and definitely wouldn't be as fun or exciting. Late in the game a giant cargo bay is turned into a wave pool by a relentlessly rising tide. When water is smashing onto the screen obstructing your view, you do start to get a claustrophobic, panicked feeling.
This leads to another problem about the game: our reluctant heroine, Kate, supposedly suffers from aquaphobia. However, one never really gets that impression from the way she swims great distances underwater and wades through crushing waterfalls. You never really get the sense she's in her own personal hell; anyone who's truly aquaphobic would experience deep emotional trauma under these circumstances, but Kate doesn't seem any more afraid than I would be. Kate does, however, sometimes make comments highlighting her fear and reluctance, but more often gives herself positive motivation. Scoot will also give frequent commentary, but most of his dialogue is just annoying.
Players will spend a lot of the time traversing dangerous environments and eliminating any Malthusian terrorists they encounter. It consists mainly of swimming and platforming in the same style as Tomb Raider: linear and obvious ledges, pipes, or beams to climb on or around in order to get around fire or locked doors. Typical tasks include finding a key card or scanning walls with your Mavi (Mobile Automated Visual Interface) for clues left behind by enemies. Kate has just a single pistol for a weapon but can find a variety of ammunition that allows for creative use; her standard stun rounds can be used to explode barrels or leaking gas lines, and can be used to stun the terrorists, and if near water, will drown them. Gel rounds act as remote mines and modified versions of the gel rounds will electrocute the terrorists.
Visually speaking, Hydrophobia is on the same playing field as the best of what the original Xbox offers; the water behaviour is brilliant and realistic, but character models are stuff and robotic, something we wouldn't expect in this generation of gaming.
It has been confirmed that Hydrophobia is actually the first chapter in a trilogy, but ends on a rather abrupt cliffhanger. The game isn't exactly lengthy and would probably take around an afternoon or two to complete, but completion of the game unlocks a rather enjoyable 'Challenge Room' that sends waves of enemies after you in a large, water-ridden warehouse. One could assume this challenge room actually foreshadows what's to come in the next instalment, as Kate has supernatural powers and is able to control water and use it as a weapon itself.