Is anyone else tired of amnesia as a plot device? Often, memory loss within video game narratives serves as a convenient excuse to deliver exposition to the player. Further, it often serves as a major driver of the action, with the motivations of the main character(s) hinging on recovering lost memories.
Why does this motivation feel lame? For one, it’s not particularly relatable, so there’s little inherent drama to the concept. Nor is there typically an interesting science fiction (or fantasy, or whatever the genre demands) concept to explore said amnesia. Instead, the plot winds up being driven by the more grounded, understandable motivations of NPCs, leaving the player to wonder why they couldn’t play a character with stronger goals. Or, failing that, why there isn’t a nameless, faceless avatar onto which they might project themselves.
Is it clear that Aquanox Deep Descent suffers from this exact problem? Players take on the role of Cryos, people preserved in cryo-stasis to wait out a society-ending nuclear war, revived to carry out some mysterious — but evidently vitally important — mission. A side effect of cryo-stasis is, of course, amnesia, and already the narrative begins to stumble. But is this initial impression fair? Does the narrative continue to frustrate? And what about the game itself?
Is it fun to zoom around in submersible ships and blast away at enemy ships and dangerous nano-fauna alike? The answer to these questions (and to the game’s central mystery) is to continue your descent beneath the waves.
Zoom In: Specs
- What is Aquanox Deep Descent? It’s a first-person vehicle shooter set in the underwater world of Aqua. Nuclear war has rendered Earth’s surface uninhabitable, driving the remnants of humanity into the seas, where the survivors pilot submersible ships and battle the elements and one another for resources and supremacy for their faction.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Developer: Digital Arrow
- Publisher: THQ Nordic
- Release Date: October 16, 2020
- Website: www.aquanox.com
Cryos in Crisis
As indicated above, Aquanox Deep Descent has something of a protagonist problem. Now, this doesn’t stem from totally inept writing. This issue stands out more because much of the writing surrounding the protagonists is pretty good. While often having secret agendas, NPCs generally have clear-cut motivations that make sense given their faction, background, ideology, etc. Early on, the four protagonists are essentially set adrift in their own narrative, and their reactions to the world around them feel inconsistent and unmotivated.
The Cryos are being dragged along by the whims of others. And while this isn’t uncommon for a video game protagonist at all, it tends to work better when said protagonist is a blank slate rather than a character who merely has amnesia. When these people have established personalities that are revealed over time (but whose motivations play second fiddle to those of the NPCs) this characterization feels more like set-dressing.
The main reason this characterization is so problematic is that the world of Aqua is a fairly interesting one, with various factions vying for dominance in a bleak, gritty underwater apocalypse. The non-player characters in this world are mainly self-interested, which lends them a grounded quality, making them feel more real and at home in this world. The Cryos by design are out of their element in Aqua, and this is a convenient plot contrivance to deliver exposition. Still, it detaches the player from the unfolding narrative, making it hard to become invested in the protagonists or their mission.
This is mostly a matter of taste, but it would be nice if more games strove to integrate their protagonists into their story worlds. To make them feel like they have place and purpose, and then find more creative ways to convey exposition than amnesia or cryo-stasis (or in this case, both!) or what have you.
Take a Dive
Protagonist problems aside, how is the actual gameplay? Overall, the underwater vehicle combat is fun and satisfying. One can nitpick, and fighting nano-fauna (creatures twisted and mutated by nanomachines) is certainly less fun than fighting other ships. But overall, customizing one’s ship and taking the fight to other pilots has enough tactical nuance to be continually engaging.
Loadouts can include miniguns, shotgun-like shrapnel cannons, torpedoes, and all manner of weapons and gadgetry. These are fun to tinker and experiment with, and there’s nothing quite like the visceral satisfaction of boosting towards an enemy ship, shredding their shields with machine-gun fire, then reducing their hull to scrap with a blast of shrapnel.
Also integral to the gameplay loop is resource management. There are various wrecks and deposits that can be scanned and salvaged on the ocean floor, and the materials derived from these finds allow the player to craft ammunition, shields, and repair kits. Thus, after a particularly tough fight, the player will often find themselves exploring a bit to resupply on munitions and patch up the hull. This is nice for pacing, offsetting explosive combat with more relaxed, introspective traversal of the abyssal depths.
As for the depths themselves, immersion is partially successful. The visuals of the underwater expanses of Aqua are admirably (and necessarily) varied, and it’s always fun seeing something like an old, rusted submarine sunk in repose, its hull ruptured, its cargo spilling out of the hold onto the silt. Visuals within the stations are comparatively disappointing, with only the ship bay being rendered, but this is a nitpick.
Overall, the visuals, including character portraits, are colorful and generally interesting. However, the music feels somewhat generic and repetitive, and while your mileage may vary, it began to grate on me over time.
Zoom Out: Verdict
Aquanox Deep Descent is a fun, visually intriguing underwater vehicle shooter. The combat mechanics and systems for upgrading and customizing your ship are deep enough to be engaging and entertaining. The world of Aqua, where the game takes place, is an interesting setting whose factional strife provides a solid framework for moment-to-moment conflict. Unfortunately, weak protagonists, underwhelming nano-fauna enemies, and a repetitive soundtrack are annoyances that recur, dampening some of the enjoyability of Aquanox. By no means do these flaws ruin the experience, but one can’t help but wonder whether exploring Aqua would be more satisfying if these aspects were reworked.
- Fun underwater combat
- Absorbing gameplay loop
- Some engaging atmosphere and worldbuilding
- Uninteresting protagonists
- Nano-fauna aren’t terribly fun to fight
- Somewhat generic, repetitive soundtrack