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Impressions: Hydrophobia Prophecy

Featured post I think she's just being electrocuted.

Dark Energy have rejigged their infamous Hydrophobia game once more, releasing it for PC at an extremely cheap price for a full length game: £9. This is an Impressions, rather than a Wot I Think, because I’m my own editor, and there’s no one in enough authority to force me to carry on past the first four or so hours. It’s safe to say I haven’t enjoyed my time in Hydrophobia‘s watery future world of terrorists vs. dryness. You can find out why below.

In PC Land we’re used to being treated poorly. But it never stings more than after someone makes a giant fuss about how they’ve worked extra hard on a PC version. The first thing you’ll notice about the overhauled Hydrophobia: Prophecy is that the PC porting is a mess. When video settings appeared before the game launched, I was quietly impressed – I’m always up for setting my resolution before I launch. But then of course I realised this is because there are no video settings inside the game at all. They didn’t bother with that. Having navigated my way to the non-existent video settings (you can adjust gamma) with my mouse, I was then perhaps not exactly unsurprised to learn that to get back out of this menu, I’d now need to switch to the keyboard, via to the two keys they’d clumsily plonked over where once there were Xbox buttons. Yes, none of this is especially outstanding in the world of console-to-PC transitions, but it stinks that little bit more potently after you’ve been told the game has been enhanced for the desktop box.

But this gets much worse. Start the game and the first thing you can do is look at some sleeping pills on a table, by hitting E. Once looked at, the only way to zoom in on the object is to press Enter. You can’t just mouse click on the option for Enter. You have to grow that third hand to navigate the menus, because this game is absolutely not optimised for the PC.

My first task is to pick up my MAVI – a personal computer thing. Which becomes entertaining, since it turns out the thing by which I viewed those sleeping pills was my MAVI, which I’d yet to pick up. I’d go back to screenshot it, but I can’t, because starting a new game would overwrite my progress, because this isn’t optimised for PC.

But the larger problem here is that the game is running like a dog on a PC that breezes through Crysis 2 at the highest settings. I’ll need to fiddle with some of the settings, see if I can get rid of the jerkiness. Except of course I can’t, because this game isn’t optimised for PC. I have to quit the game, guess at changing the settings, restart it, over and over until I can find the issue. OH GOOD.

However, giving up with the mouse and keyboard, and resorting to the 360 pad it clearly wants, reveals a genuinely decent feature. It live changes the on screen prompts for input, without a need for changing a setting. Hit the keyboard, or the pad, and it promptly changes the instructions accordingly. That’s something many other games could do with copying.

But how about the game?

It’s horrible. It’s weirdly horrible. The whole game appears to have been designed with a sense of contempt. It hits so many of the most obvious frustrations – random deaths, dodgy jumping, invisible barriers, bad checkpoints, no saves, shoddy combat, crappy interface, and inane story – that it’s hard not to take it personally.

The key gimmick here is the water in the levels, and there are absolutely no grounds to take anything away from the quality of the wet. The water effects are remarkable, swells and waves washing down corridors, buffeting you around, bursting through doors, and gradually rising in rooms in a way that usually looks very awkward in most games. And it keeps impressing, even later on when I wouldn’t be too upset if the game caught on fire – it’s a genuine achievement.

But then there’s that thing about how annoying water sections are in any game. This whole game is that annoying section. You’re only ever running down identikit dull corridors, except in this game with the constant frustration of having to wade or swim to get to the only unlocked door. For the first hour or so this sogginess is tolerable, the game focusing mostly on climbing and crude acrobatics to negotiate. But then you stumble upon your first gun, and the whole thing becomes just miserable.

The shooter mechanics are a giant mess. Enemies have psychic precision, while you are a lumbering idiot, armed with a weapon that fires at a leaden pace. But being precise isn’t even relevant. Often enemies will employ their prescience to dive out of the way as soon as you fire a pulse toward them, it safely flying over them, and then die anyway. Other times you can repeatedly shoot someone point-blank in the face and they’ll not react at all. It completely falls apart should you stand too near an enemy, where a lack of a melee attack and apparently no effect from your weapon, means you’ll just die. Fallen enemies will lie on the ground, their ragdolls hopelessly twitching, and then a few seconds later miraculously heal and stand back up again. Huh? (You eventually realise it’s because they’re only stunned, needing to be shot twice to truly die, which is about infinity frustrating.)

But it doesn’t wait until the shooting to make you annoyed. All you’re ever tasked with doing is running toward the next checkpoint. For this, there are two modes in the game’s settings. You can have it show you the next checkpoint on your HUD, or have it be restricted to the map you carry with you. I chose to have it switched off, since the instructions explained this was best for those who enjoy exploring. That’s me! It turns out they meant for those who enjoy not having the faintest idea what to do at any point, and like walking/swimming in miserable circles because they haven’t spotted the invisible writing on a wall.

The game’s misdirection seems misanthropic at times. One very early area has you climb an elevator shaft. There are pipes on the wall which you can ascend via the game’s simple point-to-climb system. Midway up you’ll grab the broken ladder, and see a short cutaway of the lift above you sliding slightly. There are more pipes on the next wall, so you climb those, reach back for the ladder once more, and the elevator car falls on you and you die. Oh. So you try again, this time more quickly. Nope – the falling seems to be triggered by grabbing the ladder. So maybe I jump from it at the last moment? No, still dead. So what if I climb higher? I can’t, and the lift falls anyway, and I still die. So it turns out what I was meant to do was break my neck by looking behind me midway up and notice the grey elevator doors, rather than climb up the bright red pipes in my immediate view. It appears to be deliberately designed to be as annoying as possible.

So instead I switched on the waypoints, sick of standing in identical blue/grey rooms not knowing or caring which way I’m supposed to go next. But now it’s just a case of following the yellow dot until the next thing happens, and the utter shallowness of the game is revealed.

All the way along the first couple of hours you’re plagued by cutscenes. With almost comic frequency they take control away from you, then having something interesting happen. All the hoary old mistakes appear here, with your character, Kate, able to do an exciting wall jump that isn’t available for you when you’re playing, along with Kate making decisions against your wishes that lead to further scrapes. They’re so frequent that when I ran through one doorway and a cutscene didn’t happen I felt disorientated. “What, nothing?” I asked the monitor as I moved Kate forward. Oh, no, it’s fine – it was just waiting for one more step this time. These do slow down eventually, but of course continue to interrupt any time things feel like they’re flowing.

There’s a group of terrorists who have decided that the solution to the overpopulation of the world is to kill everyone. Which is entirely logical, if a slightly more militant branch of VHEMT. But for some reason we’re against this, and want to put a stop to it, whoever the heck we’re supposed to be. We’re on a boat, of apparently infinite size, which these badduns seem to want to take over and blow up. So there’s the requisite voice in your head who talks inanely to you throughout. There’s nothing wrong with the voice acting. Kate’s accent seems to swim from American to English to Irish, but none is offensive. The guy, whose name I really don’t care about – it’s something like Plops, or Scooch – is the voice of all voice-in-your-ear games, and again does a perfectly decent job. It’s just that he’s saying lines like,

“Kate, I’ve got two balls and neither of them are crystal.”

Which is why I would like him to SHUT UP. But he’s there to tell me which computer to press X on, and then which door to press X on, and then to switch on my MAVI, point it at something, and press X. Then to press X on something.

Along the way there’s the incredible joy of finding you’re wasting the game’s precious few real bullets on hitting scenery, despite the enemy being clearly in your reticule without obstruction. And the mad happiness that accompanies running down an empty corridor and being instantly killed because of surprise gas vents in the walls. It’s like they thought, “What haven’t we gotten wrong yet?… Wait! Random, unpredictable deaths! Quick, add in as many as you can!”

Right now, as I pause to write more, Kate is stood in the forty-seven thousandth corridor with burning gas tanks spurting fire in front of her, some of them taking periodic breaks for Kate to nip through, just like gas always does. But the last one seems to just burn non-stop. “Great,” says my ever-present commercial-voiceover audible companion. “Looks like the gas build up triggered a chain reaction.” No, it looks like you’ve put yet another block in front of my soulless goal of running through the next door. Kate’s surrounded by pipes on the walls, but these aren’t the sort she can climb for some reason. So what do I do n… Oh, but it turns out the gas pipe was just taking ages to draw breath. So on I go.

Then, slightly later, there’s an area where it just decides to take the waypoints away. They’re gone from the HUD, they’re gone from the map, and I’m left with a vast, flooded area of corridors and chambers to swim around, with no idea why, and absolutely no desire to find out. The camera jerks around, suddenly changing angle so I lose track of where I’m going, while I’m being shot at by some assailant dressed in the same grey as the walls, obscured by fire and furniture and walls, but able to shoot at me with pinpoint precision, and I’m just done. I prefer to see a game through to the end before writing about it, but I’m also still in my 30s, I have hopes, dreams, things to do.

Please don't actually kill yourself.

And on a more personal level, there’s only so much time of my life I want to spend with a game that has the words “KILL YOURSELF” written across all its walls and video screens. I’m not contemplating suicide, I’m quite content with life and plan to continue living it, but I find myself to be a little bothered by this instruction everywhere I look. Sure, it’s the philosophy of the terrorists you’re ostensibly fighting against (by, er, killing them all – it’s surely what they want?), but it’s also a really quite stunningly grim sentence to read every minute.

This isn’t a review, because by golly it might suddenly step up and become just astonishing. I certainly haven’t reached the game’s big gimmick of water control. Something they might have wanted to put in a little earlier. Someone let me know if it does get dramatically better. So this is my account of the first few hours of I don’t know how many more, and I didn’t exactly have fun.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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