Developer: Digital Reef Games
Genre: Underwater Colony Simulator
MSRB (At time of publishing): $24.99
Game Link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1812300/Aquatico/
I have a love-hate relationship with the ocean: On the one hand, I find the ocean and its aquatic life utterly beautiful and mesmerizing, and on the other it’s a terrifying place full of monsters and darkness.
So most of my enjoyment for the sea stems from games, from the beautiful Abzu, to the unnerving and terrifying Subnautica.
However, I’ve been in a bit of a city builder mood, wistfully wanting to get lost in the hustle and bustle of running a civilization.
So it seemed there was a beautiful little intersection of the two when Aquatico came into the store a few weeks ago. However, after downloading and playing it for a scant few hours, this ocean city sim started to lose its flavor, and tasted like sea water.
Aquatico takes place in the far future where an asteroid has hit earth, thus forcing humanity to resort to a number of underwater colonies. You play as a mayor of a new town, and after that the story stops mattering. To be fair, it rarely does even in the best colony sim games, exceptions like Frostpunk comes to mind.
But the meat of the game is on the gameplay side, and how you manage hordes of different resources to build up your colony.
When I mean hordes of resources, I mean HORDES of resources. There are more than a dozen different resources, all created in different ways, and requiring their own buildings. It’s immensely frustrating, and could have been improved by cutting the required resources in half. I found myself running around trying to prop up holes in my economy and building an overwhelming amount of generators, factories, and storage units. This is in stark contrast to games like Frostpunk, where, despite the crushing difficulty, there’s only four resources, so it’s a far more enjoyable type of city sim to manage.
The amount of resources becomes so large, that it even begins to clash with the gameplay and progression. The look for all the buildings is Generic Underwater Colony #347 with the same colors, glass windows, and gray steel filling out your colony. It’s so hard to tell anything apart, from steel factories, to hunters huts, to storage facilities, you have to click on random buildings just to assign workers and drones to each one.
It makes it beyond frustrating, especially if you boot the game up after a few days and need to spend ten minutes figuring out which building is which. In theory, you can set each building to specific color combinations, but that has the added negative of making your colony look hideously ugly, with contrasting color schemes useful only for marking which factories are which.
It’s a real shame, because the aquaculture and sandbox look of the game is beautiful, the way the sand and plantlife work together, and everything that isn’t man made looks gorgeous in a way I haven’t seen since Abzu.
This clashing artstyle, combined with the utter lifelessness of your colonists, makes the game look and feel dull. Having little colonists doesn’t really kill it, but definitely puts the final nail in the coffin. One of the biggest parts of colony sims stems from how your people act and behave, but you barely even see them. The houses you build will usually be empty, they don’t sit at tables and play checkers, fight each other, or even just eat food. It follows the “Tell don’t show” fallacy. Rather than seeing my colonists in frayed uniforms, the game just tells me that they need clothes, furniture, and jewelry. At that point they stop being people, and just become text on a screen, about how my citizens are whining in their ugly houses about not having enough sweatpants and diamond earrings.
But the worst offense, in my opinion, is the gameplay: There’s just so little here. I said earlier that a colony sim doesn’t necessarily need a good story, but that excuse only works if the gameplay is good.
Aquatico is mainly focused on staring at a screen watching numbers improve, and waiting for timers to countdown, be it a building queue or research tree. That’s 80% of the gameplay. There are two “mechanics” that strive to make the gameplay interesting.
One is the politics mechanic, which is so useless I forget about it half the time. It aims to give you straight buffs to your colony, be it miniscule amounts of additional credits per month, faster build times when build times take about a minute etc. It lacks any sort of decision making and boils down to whatever gives you the biggest buffs.
The second mechanic is expedition, which is the most generic exploration gameplay I’ve ever seen in a game. You send some colonists out in a sub, with some supplies and fuel, to go check out a radio signal, distress call whatever it is. You may have to deal with a situation when you get there by clicking one of three prompts that often end anticlimactically. Get some meager supplies or new colonists if you’re lucky, get home, rinse and repeat.
Overall Aquatico suffers from a lack of originality and intrigue. The base for a good game is certainly there, and at the end of the day it is put together competently by a team who put a lot of hard work into it. But I cannot recommend this game in its current state. Definitely keep this one wishlisted, and check in on it occasionally, but wait until they fix the current issues.