Publisher: AGM PLAYISM
Played on: PC
Release Date: June 8, 2015
Time Played (Steam): 62 minutes
Played with: Xbox 360 Controller
NEO AQUARIUM: The King of Crustaceans is a game about cock-fighting with sea creatures. Did I mention they’re armed with lasers? Well, they are.
Now, chances are those sentences elicited one of two responses: an open-mouthed, “Um, WHAT?!?!”, or a smirk, followed by, “Now this, I’ve got to see”. As you may have guessed, I fell into the latter camp. However, I quickly discovered that NEO AQUARIUM’s scattershot, nonsensical ideas extend far beyond its basic premise. Its gameplay, controls, and even performance are all over the place, making for an often chaotic, unpredictable experience. For this reason, I find it all the more surprising that the whole thing is so painfully mundane.
I’ll kick things off with the opening moments of the game. Here is a direct quote from my notes: “[The] First menu made me want to vomit.” Seriously, I cannot put into words how horrid the UI design is. When the character selection screen just seems like a mess of images and text boxes thrown together, something has clearly been screwed up. Things don’t get much better once you start playing, either, as you’ll be assaulted by a garish HUD that manages to be both obtuse and intrusive. Colours clash, bars are made different sizes for seemingly no reason, and the whole thing looks like it should just be a placeholder.
Speaking of things that seem like placeholders, the controls feel completely half-baked. For starters, the game’s default binding for my Xbox 360 controller was to map both “Ascend” and “Ranged Attack” to the same button, making it so I had no way of performing a ranged attack until I actually waded through the menus to change things. Oddly, while control rebinding is supported, there is no option to un-invert the camera. The result was that I was constantly fighting with trying to get a good view on the action, as inverted camera controls are something that are largely unwieldy for me. Not that the controls were entirely to blame for that, as the camera jumps and snaps around as though it’s repeatedly falling asleep, waking up, and sluggishly rotating around your character. At times, it even seems like the camera is treated as a physical actor in the environment, as gets caught on objects, moves inside terrain, and generally has a mind of its own.
It’s worth it to actually talk about playing the game, though. You are presented with a handful of crustaceans to choose from, including a snow crab, a lobster, and a group of barnacles. Each member of the roster has unique mechanics, though this didn’t manage to keep things feeling fresh. You take control of your chosen underwater critter to fight various opponents from the same selection of species. In this respect, the game acts like a 3D fighting game, giving you a series of “story mode” fights, as well as a versus mode for custom matches.Simply put, these fights are pure chaos. In a way, that’s a good thing, as you can end up with two creatures bobbing and weaving around one another while frantically shooting lasers. To this end, the game supports a number of interesting and creative maneuvers, including the ability to shed pieces of your body that can then move and attack independently of your main character. Unfortunately, these vary in their usefulness. Sometimes they just float around you, only to be destroyed swiftly by your foe, while other times they’ll absolutely demolish the opponent.
You can also molt your skin, restoring all of your body parts, increasing your creature’s size, and unlocking new special attacks. Molting is only allowed once one of your gauges is at a certain point, which prevents you from instantly becoming an unstoppable force. However, this just turns each fight into a mad scramble to charge up your gauge so you can unlock the ability to nuke your opponent.
The downside to these fights being so disorganized is that they just turn into visual noise. I lost count of the number of times that I won or lost, stared at the screen, and said, “I have no idea how that happened.” There’s no real strategy involved; none of the delicate ballet of death that is present in so many other fighting games. Some fights were won simply by locking onto the opponent, strafing around, and spamming ranged attacks, while others ended up being endless wars of attrition where nothing I did seemed to have any impact.This confusion isn’t helped by the almost complete absence of real help. There’s a practice mode that provides a controller diagram that explains what each button does. However, that’s all it does, and the consequences of those actions, plus the other mechanics the game throws at you, are left completely hidden. I actually had to open and study a separate instruction manual file just to figure out that I was supposed to have a ranged attack. While this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the game was self-explanatory, NEO AQUARIUM is anything but. I mean, your survivability actually depends on the purity of the water, which can change over the course of a match. It’s not exactly something that one just assumes.
At least the story is…interesting? It should come as no surprise that it’s complete nonsense, though that’s partly due to how poorly written it is. I will admit, though, it had me laughing on a few occasions; mostly out of pity for the unfortunate writer who had to come up with lore for laser-powered crustacean cock-fighting.
The technical side of things is what really tanked the game for me. It looks like something that could have come out on the Playstation 2, while sporting a 30 FPS lock. There’s the aforementioned sticky camera and vomit-inducing menus. Alt-tabbing out of the game crashed it, without fail. Apparently, that was still the preferred way to close it, though, as actually quitting using the game’s menus crashed both of my computer monitors, forcing me to do a hard restart of my machine. Both times this happened, I discovered that my music library had been corrupted, forcing me to restore it from a backup. Granted, this last point isn’t necessarily linked to the game, but considering it’s never happened before, it seemed like too much to be a coincidence.After all was said and done, I was struck by how utterly unremarkable NEO AQUARIUM felt. Its crazy premise is squandered by bland visuals, frustrating controls, and gameplay that has as much strategy as a coin flip. The overall user experience manages to be both confusing and garishly simplistic. Finally, there are the utterly atrocious technical issues, which were the proverbial icing on this crustacean-infused cake.
“Weird”, “quirky”, and “ridiculous” are all words that I would use to describe NEO AQUARIUM. It’s just a shame that “fun” isn’t included in that list.