The ocean can be both our friend and enemy at the same time, but for different reasons. For every Jacques Cousteau, we get the horror of Patrick Duffy`s 80s TV monstrosity, The Man from Atlantis. So how do videogames fare within the life aquatic? Well, Aquanaut's Holiday: Hidden Memories attempts to answer that particular question.
It`s not very often that a beautiful, lilting song greets the player upon inserting the disc and viewing the opening movie, but Aquanaut's Holiday does just this. The ocean`s inhabitants are given a brief introduction during this musical interlude and it helps to create a wonderful, peaceful vibe without a hippy or granola in sight before a controller is picked up.
The game centres on Kisira Atoll, a stretch of ocean which is home to the South Pacific Wise Institute of Oceanography, or WIO. The WIO`s base of operations in this area is Aqua Heaven, which acts as the main hub for the game. Everything from progression in the game, to continuing the game`s storyline come from this location.
The player assumes the role of a journalist who is covering the disappearance of WIO`s lead researcher, William Glover, along with his submersible, Dolphin 1. It`s up to the player to discover his whereabouts and uncover exactly what happened. Once brought up to speed on events by WIO`s chief, Robert Kemelman, and aided by his assistant Jessica Porter (who provides instruction of the various functions of Dolphin 2), it`s off to uncover the heart of the mystery contained within the depths of Kisira Atoll.
Exploration is the name of the game here, and there is a decent sized underwater world to get to grips with. Navigation is limited to a specific area until you activate a Sonobuoy. These mark both the beginning and the end of a designated area. To expand progression, the player must purchase batteries from Aqua Heaven to power the buoys. To gather enough credits to buy said items, the player must catalogue the various marine wildlife contained within, which, depending on size and rarity, will yield anything from 500 to 10,000 credits for the more exotic.
As the game area expands, the thought of having to navigate all the way back to base in the Dolphin becomes a chore, but thankfully this can be circumnavigated by using the Navigation Signal Unit or NaSU. This handy device becomes available after a set period of time, allowing the player to place a marker at any point on the map which they can then fast travel to later on, preventing tedious retreads of their watery footsteps. This is a godsend as it allows the player to concentrate on the main storyline and spending more time getting acquainted with the diverse life within the ocean.
And what a collection there is. The Gigantic Right Whales can startle the player with their size and grace swimming overhead, emitting their song – enough to make anyone well up with emotion. Many creatures will be instantly recognisable, but putting a name to them provides some interesting and unusual discoveries. A 'shiver' of sharks, a 'fever' of stingrays, these are just a few of the terms the player will become acquainted with as knowledge is imparted to them. Who knew Migratory Manta Rays, Megamouth Sharks, or even Careless Scorpionfish could provide such interest? It`s also gratifying to know that a Japanese Swallow isn`t an extra paid to a geisha during a particularly saucy night out in Tokyo.
Finding some of the smaller life hidden away in a coral reef or even the deepest recesses of the ocean can become a testament to the powers of patience, but there is always the feeling of reward for such efforts. The personal satisfaction of being at the right place at the right time to find rare inhabitants is always worth the effort. Everything that is uncovered, from places to the lowliest fish are catalogued into an interactive library which can be viewed within the Aqua Library on the Dolphin 2`s main menu, accessed by pressing the start button. Each entry is complete with a little description, along with the ability to rotate through Z & Y axes for closer inspection of the desired target.
Further exploration will eventually uncover four special rocks within Kisira Atoll. These provide a pivotal role in the story as they are emitting sounds which appear to be attempting to bridge some kind of communication barrier between marine life and humans. Once each has been uncovered, these sounds are then loaded onto Dolphin 2`s HUD and selected by pressing the shoulder buttons. While the player is trying to understand exactly why these sounds have been delivered to them, a fish, or “singer” will appear in each area, and, if the on-screen prompts are followed, the player will start to notice musical notes emanating from the singers dotted around Kisira Atoll, usually beside or near many of the Sonobuoys.
Bringing to mind the first time the ocarina was handed to a young Link in the spectacular Ocarina of Time, the singer will play a set of notes, and then ask the player to repeat the sequence. In return for perfecting the routine, the singer will fill up the Dolphin 2`s MEME indicator. The subsequent red fluid forms spheres which are used to upgrade the various functions of the Dolphin 2, with everything from better manoeuvrability to being able to submerge to extreme depths; it makes the exchanges more than worthwhile. Each singer gains a level after each interaction, and each subsequent song becomes increasingly complex, yet provides an interesting diversion from the main quest.
Apart from the interaction with the aforementioned singers, Aquanaut`s Holiday is a passive experience. While this is understandable, it would`ve been nice if, when discovering a new species, there was a sense of unease, that just maybe the player would encounter some danger. Those expecting to literally grapple with the unknown lurking at the bottom of the sea will no doubt be disappointed.
An inspired inclusion in Aquanaut's Holiday is the camera. Recording the movements of great white sharks and the like is exquisite and takes up a lot of time, attempting to capture the perfect shot. As it saves directly to the PS3`s hard drive, these shots can then be showed off to any of your friends with an interest in the title.
The story is strangely intriguing considering the delivery method, which brings to mind the 80s girls magazine Jackie, especially its problem page. Involving themes as varied as disappearance, communication through to unconscious knowledge and the metaphysical, it attempts to draw the player in and, despite itself, manages to do exactly that. To mention any more could spoil the experience for any potential players, but it’s engaging enough despite the rather clumsy presentation.
Dialogue is pure Babel Fish-translated Japanese, with words that appear in the wrong context, or sentences that make little or no sense. That this game has an English language release is to be applauded, and it would be churlish to complain too much about it. Suffice to say, some unintentionally funny moments occur throughout the game.
Aquanaut's Holiday: Hidden Memories does a sterling job of making a seemingly uninteresting premise worth a look for any gamer that has an open mind and the patience to immerse themselves in a truly interesting and unique experience.