Not a review of Aquarist (Switch)

This is not a review of Aquarist. I can’t review Aquarist. Let me explain.

You see, I write reviews as a hobby. It’s fun to sample new games, see what’s coming out and use my creative side to craft a review. After an hour or so with FreeMind’s Aquarist, an aquarium management game, I wasn’t having fun. So, I stopped playing it. I’ve had this review code for two weeks now, and I’ve only done the first two missions. I just couldn’t bring myself to turn the game on and play it.  

That’s not to say Aquarist is a bad game. It could open up after a few hours and become a deep love letter to fish. A fun simulation filled with joy. It could. But I didn’t play that far. So, I couldn’t tell you.

But I do want to talk about the kind of game Aquarist is. Because I don’t understand it at all.

I love fish. I have a few PADI diving qualifications. I’m not even one of these people who’s against aquariums. I love a nice aquarium. I also like simulations. Theme Park was one of my first-love games, and Karisoft’s sim games often have a place on the home screen of my phone. But Aquarist is not what I’m looking for at all.

In Aquarist you play as a young boy who inherits a fish tank. You must prep the tank for having fish, before moving on to bigger and more complex tanks. I assume. As I say, I only played the first two missions.

The first thing that surprised me is that the game is 3D. Fish tanks are quite a 2D experience anyway. The bright colourful fish and their interactions seem primed for some lovely 2D sprite art. Instead, we get drab 3D, with low texture resolution and ugly character models that move in stiff and vaguely unsettling ways.

Then there’s the gameplay. The fun bit of aquariums is the fish. Seeing their colours, how they interact, how they shoal. I’m not sure that shoal is a verb. If it’s not, it should be. Fish tanks are moving dioramas. Creating an atmosphere is key.

Aquarist seems to think the fun bit is cleaning out the tank and placing the heaters. Which you do in first person. You grab the heater like it’s a weapon in Call of Duty and awkwardly manoeuvre around the tank as the heater jumps from surface to surface. Maybe people find this kind of stuff immersive. I find it incredibly tedious.

In the second mission, you must scoop out the fish your dad has killed with a net, and then carry them to the toilet. I think it’s supposed to be funny. It’s just bleak. Especially as the lighting makes your family toilet look like the cubicles from Silent Hill.

Once you do all these tasks in 3D, it’s time to move on. There’s no point looking back at the tank. Because it’s ugly and dark and the fish move and interact in fundamentally uninteresting ways. What should be the hero of the game, the celebratory, fun and rewarding bit, is ignored. In the first two missions, anyway. Maybe in the third mission, things change and become amazing. I wouldn’t know.

Resident Evil was on sale on the eShop. It’s a classic and I’ve never completed it. So, I downloaded and played that for a bit instead. There is an embarrassment of riches on the Switch. A wealth of classics. Playing Aquarist feels like a waste of time.

I don’t need to play Aquarist. Especially as I’ve kind of already played it. Tank Mechanic Simulator and Bus Driver Simulator Countryside have the same flat lighting. The same button prompts that are too small a TV. The same feeling that the text has been Google Translated from another language. The same…vibe. The vibe being that there’s a ready-made 3D engine out there and a dwindling list of things that have yet to be ‘simulated’.

I guess I can’t knock the hustle. We’re returning to a scene of bedroom developers. Of small folks taking on the big guns of EA and Ubisoft. These folks are learning. Growing their skills. Trying to make it in a crowded market and trying to earn a wage. Fair play to them, I say.

But I’m still not going to play level 3.