Hydrophobia Prophecy: Into The Deep End
Spoiler warning: Spoilers for Hydrophobia—both the Pure and Prophecy versions. Yes, they have slightly different stories!
If nothing else, Dark Energy Digital are persistent. Where other companies might have been content to create a stunning fluid dynamics gaming engine, slap together a glorified tech demo for a game and move on to licensing its tech, Dark Energy has been steadily tinkering with Hydrophobia in order to improve upon its weaknesses. They’ve even managed to turn their initial PR blunder—lashing out at publications posting bad reviews of the original Hydrophobia—into something of a success story by essentially apologizing for their response and working to address the issues those reviews brought up.
The thing is, even with all the improvements Dark Energy has made, Hydrophobia continues to be more interesting as a case study of indie game creation than it is as an actual game. I picked up Hydrophobia Prophecy on PC off Steam for $3, even though I’d already beaten Hydrophobia Pure on 360, for two reasons. One, Prophecy resolves the cliffhanger from Pure—it feels like the plans to make Hydrophobia an episodic series have been nixed, though Dark Energy implies otherwise. But more importantly, it was a chance to see for myself the interesting experiment in game evolution Dark Energy had created. How exactly had Prophecy changed from Pure, and did those changes genuinely make the game better?
Let’s answer those questions in order. Most reviews of Prophecy touch on what’s changed between the various Hydrophobia releases, but here’s what I specifically noticed:
Scoot, your omnipresent in-ear director, is no longer Scottish. The most obvious change since Pure is that Scoot’s voice acting has been completely redone with an American actor, presumably due to endless complaints about how bad the Scottish voice acting was. Thing is, even if he did sound over-the-top, Scoot’s original voice and character model made him seem halfway between comic relief and bumbling sidekick—a necessary foil to Kate’s reluctant heroine. That personality also made his last-act kidnapping in Pure convincing; whatever help he managed to give Kate, he clearly wasn’t going to hold up in any sort of firefight, so it makes sense that you’d have to go save him.
Dark Energy have thrown out the baby with the bathwater in replacing Scoot’s voice actor; now he’s a commercial spokesperson trying to convince you to buy life insurance. Stunningly competent and perfectly bland, Scoot’s role is now limited to that of telling you what to do and where to go. And while the original Scoot at least attempted to evoke panic, stress and relief at the proper moments, the new Scoot seems hardly able to emote at all. Case in point: the conversation you have with him at the beginning of the game, as you go to check out a minor malfunction on the Queen of the World. The old Scoot played the role of friendly supervisor chastising you for working too hard reasonably well, something the new Scoot fails spectacularly to do.
Kate now gets water powers. Apparently, in Hydrophobia Pure, there were hints that Kate might receive mysterious powers allowing her to harness water in interesting ways. But during the storyline, these powers never came into play; presumably they were being saved for later episodes. But now that the future episodes apparently no longer exist, there’s no reason to hold back on the water powers, so now Kate gains the use of them about halfway through Act 3. Which leads us to…
Act 3 is completely different. In Hydrophobia Pure, and probably the original Hydrophobia as well, Act 3 consists of you trying to get back to the shuttle annex so you can secure an escape route for you and Scoot. At some point, Scoot gets kidnapped, leaving you alone to figure out what to do next. You make it to the shuttle annex, only to be ambushed by Malthusians. Outnumbered and outgunned, you’re about to accept your fate when, out of nowhere, Chief Billingham saves the day—payback for when you saved his ass near the beginning of the game. He’s had a change of outlook, deciding that you’re not the deadweight he thought you were, and assisting in the plan to rescue Scoot. Act 3 ends abruptly as the two of you make that pact, with an implied “To be continued” lingering over the credits.
Prophecy promised to remove the cliffhanger ending, but it doesn’t do so by resolving it; instead, Scoot never gets kidnapped and you never meet up with Chief Billingham. Instead, Prophecy expands on exactly what the Malthusians are doing aboard the Queen of the World, culminating in a sequence where you get infected by the nano-agent the Malthusians were hoping to use as a bioweapon to cull the population. That’s where your water powers come from. Instead of getting kidnapped, Scoot tells you briefly what he knows about the nano-agent, and then leaves to secure his own escape from the Malthusians—you never hear from him again. And instead of trying to rescue Scoot and get off the ship, your new task is to find an antidote to whatever horrible affliction you have, which of course means tracking down the head of the Malthusians and getting it from her.
There are benefits to the new Act 3, largely in the form of new environments not seen in Pure and the aforementioned water powers. But anyone looking for a more satisfying ending than Pure’s won’t find it here. Whereas at least Pure had the excuse of possibly being part of an episodic series, Prophecy’s ending feels pretty final, but it’s just as abrupt. Moreover, it comes after a boss battle that might actually be buggy, as it was so easy it practically completed itself. And by that I mean I spent very little time actually attacking the boss, choosing to clear the room of soldiers before moving on to the main event, only to find the boss had somehow destroyed itself in my absence.
Aside from that, any changes made between Pure and Prophecy are slight enough that I didn’t notice or care (Kate’s apartment’s gotten some upgrades, for example, but it’s entirely cosmetic). The main draw of the game—get sloshed around by realistic water, kill Malthusians using environmental hazards to your advantage, figure out climbing and hidden-message puzzles—is still the same. It’s also about the same length, despite the new ending. In fact, probably due largely to this being my second run through a Hydrophobia game, I finished Prophecy in less time than Pure.
Despite Dark Energy’s apparent commitment to Hydrophobia, both as a game and as a potential franchise, I wonder if even the developers are getting tired of the concept. The way the ending plays out feels a bit like they needed to fast-track the plot they’d laid out because they wouldn’t be able to fully flesh out the second half of the storyline to their satisfaction. It feels a bit slapdash, especially the boss battle, and for all the talk of giving the Malthusians more of a backstory and motivation for hijacking the ship, all we really get is “hey there’s a bioweapon they could use to kill lots of people.” And with next to nothing in the way of a denouement, we get no idea of what happens to any of the major players in the story, save the villain, who is clearly dead.
I can’t help but feel that maybe Dark Energy would be better served trying to take their undeniably impressive technology and applying it to something else, rather than endlessly rehashing the same game to try and perfect it. With Prophecy releasing on the only major platforms yet to receive a Hydrophobia game, this is probably the end of the line for the game, if not the series; at some point, people are going to stop buying the same game over and over. But I’m cautiously optimistic that eventually Dark Energy will figure out how to make a game that’s interesting for more than just its lengthy, public incubation period.
P.S. You remember that horrible puzzle in Act 2? Yup, it’s still there, largely unchanged. I wish the built-in Darknet dev feedback system let you type in comments about why you voted up or down a specific part of the game.
[This article, sans images, originally appeared on Wesley's Dear Game Diary tumblr]