Aquarist review

Rich attempted to review the Switch version of Aquarist last November, but despite best efforts, couldn’t make much progress. The iffy controls, awkward camera movement, and poor presentation let down what should have been a relaxing experience. The developers had, somehow, made a game involving setting up aquariums frustrating to play. The simulation has now wiggled its way on Xbox One and Xbox Series. As a PC game originally, can more powerful hardware change things for the better?

Let’s first outline what Aquarist is. The main campaign is an aspirational story that sees our silent protagonist receive a small fish tank for their birthday. This fuels their dream of becoming the owner of an aquarium where visitors can gaze at all manner of marine life, including sharks. This entrepreneurial escapade is spread over several locations, all of which have a long list of objectives to complete. It takes us from the bedroom to basement and beyond – with riches made along the way after setting up a store, which helps to support the next step of the journey.

There’s also a restriction-free Designer Mode available from the outset, in which you’re presented with a prominently white sunlit apartment and are free to step up an aquarium and decorate it as you please. In concept, this is fine. Even appealing. Both modes however are compounded by a myriad of faults. An unbelievable combination of botched controls, shoddy presentation, and some incredible oversights – such as the Designer Mode lacking a tap to fill up the water bucket.  

The depth lies within obtaining an ideal environment: the temperature and PH level must be suitable for the fish and plants purchased, and the fish also require the correct food. Saltwater and freshwater species are available, including octopi and seahorses. Tanks can be decorated with backdrops, a choice of “soil” (gravel) types, and lights can be installed. Rocks, shells, and an ever-popular pirate treasure chest can be used as decorations, meanwhile. Catch a fully decorated tank at the right angle, and in the right light, and it can look quite attractive.

But like a lot of simulations making their way from PC to console, not much thought has gone into tailoring the experience to the joyous combo of playing on a sofa with a controller in hand. The shopping menu features tiny text, incorrect or missing button prompts, buttons mapped to the same action (adjusting thermometer temperature with LB/RB also zooms and pans the camera), and a cursor that’s far too slow. The left analogue stick isn’t used within menus at all, instead relying on an odd combo of the right analogue stick, d-pad, and the LB/RB buttons. It feels vastly unintuitive, and some icons aren’t particularly clear either. At least somebody tried to weave a few semi-amusing jokes in the item descriptions, including a SpongeBob Squarepants reference.

Camera movement is awkward and robotic, and accidentally pushing LT puts the camera into ‘view mode’ – something that happens constantly as LT is also used for other actions. Placing items is equally finicky as decorative items can be altered in size but can only be placed in set locations (imagine an invisible grid), meaning this idea doesn’t allow for much creativity. Then there’s a whole bunch of minor issues, such as the heater and filter turning themselves off if they’re accidentally moved.

And while the fish are reasonably active in their environments, they lack anything resembling AI, so if you’re expecting them to hide in the plants or interact with one another you’re in for more disappointment. As a side note, it’s also evident that English isn’t the developer’s first language, with such blunt mission objectives as “Put some water plants” and similar garbled translations.

The story mode has an additional problem, and it’s one that renders the whole experience worthless. Aquarist simply forgets that a video game should be fun. Initially, it has you scooping out dead fish from a neglected tank and throwing them into the toilet or bin, mopping up spillages, and painstakingly cleaning away algae with a sponge. But then gets worse. And more tedious. Upon entering the basement to set up your store, you’re instructed to paint the walls, place floor tiles, clean graffiti, and throw away the countless cardboard boxes and yellowed newspapers strewn across the floor. None of these objectives are compelling to complete, especially when the only incentive to play is to tackle more tedious objectives, only in a different location.

I’m guessing the developers either thought this would appeal to fans of House Flipper, or they simply felt a need to bulk the experience with busywork to extend its playtime. It’s a mystery.

While we’ll likely never know the thought process that went into Aquarist, we do know that the developers should have spent more time asking themselves if what they’ve created is fun to play. As I carried a rotting fish down a set of stairs and entered the bathroom, ready to throw its lifeless body into the toilet to unlock an achievement, I’m sure part of my soul drifted away. Play Aquarist for more than a couple of hours, and you’ll likely feel the same. This is less of a game and more of a test of patience.

Aquarist is out now on Xbox One and Xbox Series. It first launched on PC and Switch.