It’s important to me for you to understand how bad of a good game Aqualibrium (80 MSP) is, and you should know that type of backhanded compliment doesn’t come easy for me. I’m much more comfortable with games being labeled and sorted. With the amount of indie titles available, we all know how vital it is to have some kind of filter over the spout, even if it works only in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ extremes. I like to think of the Indie Rundown (when we were doing it here) as one such filter, sorting with drone-like efficiency. There’s no room (and no time, for older gamers) for middle-of-the-road games. So to avoid leaving Aqualibrium to perish in that great middle divide, I make a grand statement for both myself and you to remember it by. I feel I should put this in quotes, just to emphasize the thought.
Aqualibrium would be a leaderboard game without the cannons.
There. It’s been said. So, cannons, you say? Yeah, I’ll be getting to that.
If you’re wondering why Snoopy is wearing a jetpack, you’re not alone.
Crash-landing on a foreign planet and buried beneath a massive ocean, you find your ship, the Orcna, slowly falling apart, compartments swelling and flooding badly. Pressure is building in each level, and to ease that burden, you (jetpack-equipped) must divert a set amount of ocean water to a funnel at the bottom of the stage. Take too long, spill too much of that water over the side, or fail to get any consistent stream going (there’s only a set amount of water released initially, forcing you to collect in order for more to flow), and it’s game over. You place blocks to build a path, remove stoppers and water-soluble red blocks, open and close barrier walls, among other tricks, all to keep the water moving in the right direction.
This part of the game is handled superbly. There’s been mention by others of floaty and imprecise controls, though I never found them to be so. If there’s fault to be assessed, it’s not here. The water puzzles are satisfying and escalate fairly; some of the routes and channels you’ll spot / construct are clever enough to give anyone a challenge. Later on, you’ll work with acid (diverted much like water, except you can’t touch it), or mix colors to form a new liquid before they reach the funnel. It’s subtle. Each stage changes the way you’ll go about the job. Were Aqualibrium to have rested on its laurels here, slowly ratcheting up the puzzle complexity over its forty levels (in both Easy and Hard settings), it would be enshrined on a leaderboard, here or elsewhere, no question.
Sadly, the game stumbles with the introduction of enemies. Even with a gun (where available), the different varieties of aliens are tough to work around, especially given that their patterns are anything but traceable. Their random routes through already-tight chambers put plenty of areas off limits for longer than they should be while you play the waiting game. Patience is a virtue, but when pressure is building up and water is going everywhere but where it should be, patience can fuck right off. Ditto for the ‘one-hit then death’ policy. Still, the aliens I could deal with. They’re not nearly the nuisance that sends Aqualibrium‘s aggravation over the top.
That honor belongs to the cannons that make their first appearance in stage five, and almost every level thereafter. It starts innocently enough, a supposedly malfunctioning cannon here or there, firing a straight bullet past your face, a warning shot across the bow, if you will, just to throw up a caution flag. Soon enough, though, they’re excessively peppering a stage’s landscape and filling already-at-a-premium airspace with multiple, now-flowering or homing shots. Like the enemies’ movement, their fire patterns are occasionally random and not conducive to the intended goal at all. While the invading enemies make a begrudging amount of sense, the cannons feel more like tacked-on challenge than a natural occurrence (this is your ship, after all, not Fort Knox), and go too far out of their way to ruin an otherwise pleasant game.
No enemies. No cannons. Also known as the good life.
Which is disheartening when developer Archifishal Software has such a compelling idea to start with, putting thought into its puzzles, and even going so far as to foster a highscore community, with extensive online leaderboards that not only track overall score, but individual level scores and completion times, for those (like me) that wring a little too much satisfaction out of standing atop such things. In terms of content and replayability, it’s loaded.
That all told, and with every mess it makes of itself, is Aqualibrium worth the dollar? It is, absolutely. The value to me was never in doubt, and I don’t see anybody else outright regretting the purchase either. Despite the presence of some annoying design choices and the inevitable frustration, the act of first figuring out and then transporting the water through each stage remains unquestionably fun. This review was never about why you shouldn’t buy it, only what holds the game back from being something truly great. Those flaws may forever keep it at middle-of-the-pack status, but you’d be doing a disservice to yourself to pass on it completely.