Aquatico is one of those experiences that puts me in mind for my first serious forays into games. I absolutely adore the city-building genre. I cut my gamer teeth on Pharaoh, sunk hour after hour into Anno, and watched my Settlers grow their villages into prosperous metropolises. Honestly, I grew up playing city-builders, and I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing the genre evolve into modern tours de force like Cities: Skylines, Surviving Mars and Tropico. It has been a sincere pleasure to see the genre grow and develop the way it has. I know city builders – and more than that, I know what an old city builder feels like.
Unfortunately, dear reader, Aquatico feels like an old, old city-builder. I wish I meant that in a good way. Before we go further, I would like to emphasise that Aquatico is an in-development game. My experience is likely not reflective of the final product, and I expect it to grow and change based on feedback – but they have solicited a review of their product, and we here at GamEir will oblige.
Aquatico, you ain’t got no alibi – you ugly!
Alright, let’s get this out of the way. It’s right in your face from the moment you launch Aquatico. The UI, the graphics, the animations… It’s all u-g-l-y. I’d love to be more generous, but I just can’t. It’s not stylised, or retro – it’s a poor effort.
The colour palette is incredibly bland and utilitarian. Each building is practically indistinguishable from the next – just another lump of unremarkable grey plastic. The pipelines that you must build to connect your buildings are similarly a blight on the landscape. The domes – raised platforms for your people to live on – are, again, boring, ugly, and just generally unexciting.
The UI is, frankly, shocking. City-builder games – and management games in general – live and die by their user interface. UI should be easily readable, unobtrusive, and at least a little bit aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, Aquatico‘s UI manages to be none of the three. It’s dense, it’s constantly in the way of the rest of the game, and very poorly designed. One thing that stands out – not in a good way – is the game’s over-reliance on colour-coding its building grid. It uses a bland palette of colours to differentiate buildable areas with a central colour key, but it doesn’t offer a colourblind option.
Finally, the music and sound effects are equally obnoxious. I eventually had to switch the in-game music off altogether.
Quarterly earnings report underwater; aka, Aquatico
The actual gameplay of Aquatico is incredibly simple. You have an in-flow and out-flow of resources, produced by various buildings. The buildings are staffed – variously by drones and human workers – and they either gather or process resources. Higher-level buildings require resources produced by lower-level buildings. Some buildings automatically move resources between them, while others (like the power or oxygen facilities) require the player to build pipelines.
That’s… About it. That’s the gameplay.
There’s a minor layer of complexity added to Aquatico in the form of domes. As I mentioned above, these are the raised platforms where your human colonists live. You need to satisfy their needs, make them happy with necessities as well as luxury goods – yada yada. All that said, however, I’m left with a burning question – why?!
Most city-builders provide some kind of goal for the player to reach. An enemy to out-maneuver, perhaps, or a threshold to reach. Not so with Aquatico. The game never really answers why I want more people, or why I’d bother to make them happy. Eventually – for me, at least – it just turned into a game of “build one of each kind of building”. The game didn’t really provide any goals, quests, or any motivation beyond “the surface is boned, build Rapture!”.
That wouldn’t really have been a problem if the core gameplay wasn’t so mundane, staid, and humdrum. There’s no real joy in building your underwater city. It all just feels a bit… Pointless!
Conclusion: Is it worth it for city-building fanatics?
The golden question. If you love city-builders, is this a game for you?
Unfortunately, I think you know my answer by now. In the state it’s in, Aquatico isn’t suitable for anyone. It’s the one thing no game should ever be. It’s boring. And did I mention ugly?
It’s worth reiterating my point from the intro. Aquatico is very much a game still in development. Maybe Digital Reef will put more meat on its bones. Perhaps much of its art and UI is a placeholder. I have my doubts but never say never. But right now, Aquatico feels like a game that was released in the mid-2000s and has not aged well.
What I can say is – unless you love watching numbers on a spreadsheet meaninglessly tick upward, this isn’t the game for you.Stay tuned to GamEir. Come talk with us on Twitter (@gam_eir), Facebook (@GamEir), and Instagram (@GamEir).