You know how concept art is always way cooler than the final product? I’m thinking about the glorious pieces of artwork featuring Jack-Jack as a hideous hairy monster throughout the first The Incredibles movies, Obi-Wan and Anakin teaming up to fight a giant lava monster during their confrontation on Mustafar or Thor fighting Jormungander, the World Serpent instead of travelling to Nidavellir in Infinity War. All of these examples take some mind-blowing preliminary concept art and, as it’s developed into the final article, strip away everything that makes it charming and beautiful. There are obvious reasons why this happens in movies but when it comes to video games where you can use whatever art style you feel like, why not stick with that incredible concept art? Well, welcome to Aquamarine, a game that decided its aesthetic would be to take the concept art, bundle it into a design document and run for the hills.
Aquamarine’s art style sits somewhere between concept art and pop art, with every frame of the game looking like a hand-drawn sketch with incredibly vivid colours. I go on about how good games look an awful lot in these reviews but feel free to assume every game I’ve complimented on its appearance looks like absolute garbage compared to Aquamarine. Every frame of the game looks holy-cow-gorgeous (not that a religious bovine would look particularly good, but you get my meaning). It’s genuinely breathtaking. You might look at the screenshots around this review and think they look ‘just okay’ which is maybe a fair comment on them as pieces of art but when you experience them as a living, breathing world, their beauty is elevated exponentially. This stunning art style is paired brilliantly with a calm and twinkly soundtrack that makes the whole affair incredibly relaxing.
But enough about the game as art, what is it like to play? It’s pretty damn good. Aquamarine is a survival and exploration game but it’s not quite like any of those that you’ve played before. It’s the most chill survival game in the world. You play as an astronaut whose name I did not catch so I’m going to call her Cindy. Cindy has crash-landed on a Kamino-like watery planet and needs to reach her crashed ship. She can do that by diving through the water in her amphibious pod whose name I did not catch so I’m going to call it Poddy. With your help, Cindy and Poddy will explore the ocean floor to find fuel and food for their journey, acquire upgrades from scattered floppy disks and avoid taking damage from the grumpier ocean inhabitants.
The chillness of the game comes from the slow pace and emphasis on thinking before acting. When you boot up the game, the first thing you meet is a screen telling you to play without distractions, to take your time and make thoughtful decisions. It’s the absolute antithesis to your standard survival game set in a murky wasteland where you spend your first night crying in a hole you’ve dug in the ground. The game is loosely turn-based so nothing is going to happen in the world until you’ve decided what action you want Cindy to take. This makes the game really attractive to me as it’s something you can switch on for a few hours at a time and lose yourself in. If you subscribe to the idea that games are for relaxation (AKA the correct idea) then this is definitely something for you.
The majority of the game is movement-based so you can decide which section of a grid you want to visit to avoid monsters and pick up food and fuel. The more fuel you acquire the more you can move and the further from the island you can stray, moving between sections of the map using your long-range engines. You can also move up to the surface of the ocean to help you manoeuvre around tricky obstacles and dangerous enemies. The control panel you’ll use for all of this is a delightfully retro-sci-fi affair. It’s all very original series Star Trek with satisfying clicky buttons, meters and transitions to secondary control panels. Once you unlock further abilities, you’ll have more controls, such as an ability to smash into things, doing damage to enemies and loosening fuel from deposits. You’ll also travel back to your original island often where you can perform upgrades on Poddy and rest in your garden before starting on your next adventure. The gameplay matches well with the theming of the whole game – it’s stripped-back, simple and relaxed.
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention a couple of flaws in the game. It is very glitchy. I found a lot of buttons didn’t work until you tried them a few times or left the menu and went back into it, and a big blue rectangle kept appearing over the screen that stopped you from interacting with the game at all until you quit and rejoined. I’m writing this on release day so I’m sure these things will be fixed in good time but if you are thinking about picking it up (which I do recommend) you might want to wait a few weeks and check the bug fixes before you do.
Aquamarine is a delightful time. Calm, beautiful and compelling, it’s the perfect way to calm down and switch off after a long day at work, like a hot bath or a cold beer. There is so much going for the game that I’ve not mentioned here: Cindy’s brilliant narration, random risk-reward choices, the adorable seal monsters and so much more. If you like survival games but wish they were fun, Aquamarine might be worth a fair chunk of your time.