Hands-on: Hydrophobia (XBLA)

It's been nearly five years since Dark Energy Digital began work on the water physics-based action-adventure game Hydrophobia. In that time, the developer has shown approximately nobody the game -- heck, before I heard about the game heading to Xbox Live Arcade last summer, there hadn't been a lick of info on it in nearly nine months. But with this week's announcement of the game's XBLA exclusivity (and subsequent playability at PAX East), Joystiq was offered its first chance to play the title this morning. I'm happy to report that ... it's pretty good!

Alright, so, while Hydrophobia probably isn't going to be taking top spots on my 2010 GOTY list, I could certainly see it making an appearance on my "best of XBLA" list this year. The demo immediately made me think of playing Shadow Complex at last year's E3 -- it doesn't quite look like what you'd expect from XBLA, and the developers made sure to repeatedly affirm the game's "AAA quality" throughout my hands-on earlier this morning. Whether guiding the game's main character, Kate, through platforming areas or underwater, the gameplay itself felt like a solid base for what could be a very interesting (six-hour-ish) experience.
The PAX East demo thrust me into a dark room with locked doors; a situation I picture happening rather often in Hydrophobia's massive sinking environment, a "super yacht" that houses a large contingent of humanity's overpopulated future. For the first of many times throughout the demo, I was tasked with figuring out how to proceed to the next objective using the environment around Kate as best I could. That meant traversing destroyed elevator corridors, jumping over 20-foot drops and even facing Kate's fear of water head-on (seriously? she works on a boat!).

When I asked about the game's influences, I was told that everything from Dead Space to Psi-Ops played a role in the development. Dead Space's influence was immediately apparent while wandering the Queen of the World's quickly sinking halls awash with bodies, but it wasn't until a DED representative pointed out the game's still not fully-revealed physics manipulation abilities (at the end of the latest trailer) that we saw Psi-Ops' direct influence. BioShock's audio logs also make an appearance, lending more story to a world otherwise detailed in brief cutscenes and by the ruined environment surrounding the game's main character.

The game's sense of enormity really helped to hammer home the reasoning behind the ridiculously long development time (the map was large during our demo and said to be much larger). As both Dark Energy Digital representative Rob Hewson and Microsoft XBLA game program manager Mark Coates explained when I asked them about the five-year dev time, it's about making sure the game is "meeting its full potential." And though the build I played was "final code" (read: still getting polished), the game felt next to fully baked. While Hydrophobia probably shouldn't be anyone's most anticipated title of the year, it is absolutely one that should be on your radar.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.