Hydrophobia was developed by Dark Energy Digital and published by Microsoft Game Studios for XBLA on September 29, 2010. Retails for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15). The publisher provided a copy of the game for reviewing purposes.

After more than three years in development, Hydrophobia is finally available on Xbox Live Arcade to start off this fall’s Game Feast promotion. The result is a fine action adventure game made special because of its impressive water physics, but one that is also far from perfect.

Developed by Dark Energy Digital, Hydrophobia takes place in the near future upon a massive sea-faring city called The Queen of the World, which is taken over by a group of terrorists called the Malthusians. It often resembles BioShock in both theme and setting, but stands out mostly due to the dynamic water physics.

Water unsurprisingly plays a major gameplay role in Hydrophobia, and allows the player to use it as weapon and as a way to solve puzzles. While it is certainly remarkable to see water behave as realistically as it does here, especially for an XBLA title, there unfortunately has to be a game behind the tech and that part doesn’t always amaze. Frustrating camera controls often get in the way of exploring the sinking ship, particularly during climbing and underwater swimming sections. Strange bugs and glitches often break the immersion at times too, and sometimes the audio is so bad you would swear you were playing an original PlayStation game.

Hydrophobia’s overall quality and exceptional experience are usually good enough to make you forget about these nagging flaws, though.

Here’s what we liked:

Impressive water physics – Hydrophobia would be a pretty standard action adventure game without the awesome water physics, which are powered by the HydroEngine. Water realistically ripples and bursts through walls, and is as handy as it is deadly. Few games have ever succeeded like Hydrophobia in making water both look and behave convincingly, as well as functioning as a primary gameplay mechanic. The only complaint I have with the water is the odd pluming effect that massive waves produce. Instead of looking like a wave, the water looks like a distorted, stretched out wall of water. However, this is only noticeable because the water looks so realistic the rest of the time.

Provides fun and creative ways to kill enemies – Hydrophobia provides quite a few memorable combat moments as you navigate your way through the sinking city-ship. I personally found flooding an area to drown a group of enemies immensely satisfying, but this is only one of the many possible ways to dispatch foes. Setting off a chain reaction of exploding barrels is always nice, as is shooting a nearby electrical box and watching electricity surge through an area. The Challenge Room, which becomes available after finishing the game, lets the player use all the skills they acquired during the campaign, but also throws in a tantalizing treat – telekinesis powers. Using telekinesis to create huge waves and toss enemies around is great fun and provides a glimpse of what to expect in the sequel.

Great atmosphere – DED did a great job nailing the atmosphere and feeling of being inside a sinking ship. Loud creaks and deep rumbles fill the senses, as does the sound of rushing water. It brought back distinct feelings of watching Titanic or The Abyss. There are definitely some claustrophobic moments when massive amounts of water came hurdling down a narrow corridor toward you, or when a room suddenly begins flooding, forcing you to find a quick escape. Hydrophobia is good a making you feel uneasy and tense in situations like these, which is something that few games can pull off well.

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Annoying bugs and glitches – For a game in development as long as Hydrophobia, it’s unfortunate that I ran into so many glitches. They ranged from funny, like enemies becoming trapped inside objects that were underwater, to incredibly frustrating, such as the camera becoming locked at an unmovable angle. For these instances, a simple checkpoint reload fixed the problem, but it was still very frustrating, especially if I didn’t have a recent checkpoint. The good news is that these seem like problems that could be patched.

Bad overall audio – Besides the great ship-sinking sound effects I mentioned earlier, I found the rest of the audio to be awful. Most of the voiceovers are decent enough too, but your partner Scoot’s whiny Scottish accent tested my patience throughout the entirety of the game. After multiple checkpoint reloads and hearing his same lines over and over again I was ready to mute the game altogether. I also found the weapon sound effects to be strangely quiet, to point that I hard a hard time even hearing if I was being shot at. Combined with the fact that Hydrophobia doesn’t do a real good job of indicating where you’re getting shot at from, and some frustrating deaths are bound to happen. The soundtrack isn’t memorable either, but serves its purpose of building tension.

Forgettable story, repetitive gameplay – Protagonist Kate Wilson is a uniquely flawed and vulnerable character, but this and her fear of water are hardly built on or explored. It’s established early that she’s afraid of water, but it seems odd and inconsistent that she is instantly swimming and diving through a flooded ship without experiencing any trauma. Rather than developing any of her background, Hydrophobia spends most of its time focusing on the terrorists’ goals and motives, which is unfortunate because Kate has the potential to be so much more interesting. The plot as whole covers familiar territory, and by the time the game ends with its cheesy cliffhanger you’re not quite sure what’s going on anymore. It doesn’t help either that the only thing pushing you forward through the campaign is finding key cards, scanning for decodable messages left by the terrorists and unlocking the next door.

Despite these imperfections, Hydrophobia is a title worthy of attention and your hard earned money. The quality of its experience makes up for its brevity, and is a great showpiece title for what can be done on XBLA. Sure, the game has its fair share of problems, and if you’re looking for a compelling plot or deep characters you won’t find that in Hydrophobia. But what you will find is a memorable, great-looking and technically impressive game that features some sweet water physics.

Score: BUY IT