Developer: FreeMind Games
Publisher: Ultimate Games
Genre(s): Simulation, Educational
Platform: Xbox Series X (also available on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC)
Age Rating: PEGI 3
Release Date: 31/05/23
A code was provided for review purposes
Aquarist is a case of the right game coming along at the right time. Aquarist is a calming simulator that places you in charge of increasingly large and complex aquariums. Following the likes of other simulator games, it promises a calming but engaging gameplay experience. Read this rapid review to find out if it delivers.
After playing a number of emotionally heavy games recently, the idea of an aquarium simulator offered some welcome respite. However, my early playthrough of Aquarist was plagued by control issues, clunky movement, and a generally confusing controller setup. Additionally, you needed near-pinpoint accuracy to pick up and move many of the items. If playing with a keyboard and mouse, I can see this being less of a concern. However, the console version of the game offered more frustration than relaxation early on.
But, I persevered, and after a few misstarts, I managed to find my feet and start making progress in the game.
An Oddly Creepy Affair
I will be honest; my playthrough of Aquarist was hampered by bugs, including one game-ending affair that sadly hit quite early on and just as I was getting into the swing of things. I will discuss that in a little more detail later on.
The concept of Aquarist is simple. Your dad gives you a fish tank and tasks you to look after it. He claims to be an expert. However, the second level of the game will have you questioning the validity of this.
The game talks you through what you need to do. You are given step-by-step objectives to set up your own tank, which serves as an introduction and form of tutorial. I really enjoyed this and spent too long playing around and positioning everything.
Subsequent levels see you helping people solve their own fish tank problems. This includes your own fish expert father, who, in the second level, cannot understand why the fish in his algae-filled tank are all dead.
Yes, the storyline in the game is silly, but it’s the level of creepiness that lies over everything that bothered me early on.
Your dad gives off some major serial killer vibes, which I’m sure are unintentional. Your mother sits stoic and unmoving on the sofa, as if fearful of everything, and your neighbour lives in a house that looks like something created to keep someone prisoner.
To top it off, your father then says you can move into the basement to open your own fish tank repair business. It gives Aquarist an oddly sinister tone which I know is not the intention but has been well-executed nonetheless.
A Calming Experience
I have a small aquarium myself, and I can easily lose time just watching the fish swim around. Aquarist recreated this experience to some degree. I lost myself in setting up and watching the aquariums. Time melted away as I moved plants, rocks, and other decorations, getting things just right. I also liked the different colour lights I could set, which really lit up the tanks quite beautifully.
Playing Aquarist reminded me that games do not all need to be action-packed or driven by life-or-death situations to be enjoyable.
The game didn’t really expand until after the opening level. I’ll admit, I spent longer than necessary on this and overspent on the first few attempts I made, as I kitted out of beginner tank to the nines.
A Tale of Two Graphics
Graphically, Aquarist is a strange bag. While the game is not a hyper-realistic experience, I found there was a big difference between the look and feel of the tanks and everything that went into it and the rest of the world around you.
Aquarist is a game that leaves nothing to the imagination in terms of its core theme. Aquarium management. While it slims down the science of maintaining an aquarium somewhat, it remains the core gameplay element. As a result, the rest of the world around you has a much clunkier aesthetic. Whether this was intentional or budget based, I cannot say, but it served to act as a spotlight, shining a light on the game’s core elements.
There were certain times when the lack of attention in the world around you became annoying, but it never detracted from the relaxing experience of the game. The first example came in the third level, where you had to help a neighbor repair their tank. Justing moving up and down their stairs was a fairly torrid experience. Mainly thanks to the design of the house and the size of the boxes on the stairs. This was especially evident when moving from the first to the second section of stairs. It will make more sense when you play the game. Trust me.
A Mess of Bugs and Problems
As much as I enjoyed playing Aquarist, ultimately, the game left a sour taste because of the number of bugs and bizarre behaviors I came up against.
The controls were finicky, and as mentioned, the need for pinpoint accuracy became frustrating when trying to pick up smaller items. This was made more frustrating when I think back to the size of the boxes and invisible walls on my friend’s stairs.
Among the bugs I experienced were several soft locks while trying to attack heaters and pumps to the wall of my tanks and disappearing items that I had purchased.
The worst instance was a game-breaking bug that sadly halted my experience on just the fourth level. Despite there being an autosave function of sorts, the game introduces a manual save at the start of the level. Sadly, the save game screen locked the game completely. Despite frequent restarts and even an entirely new playthrough, I encountered the same problem every time.
After some Google detective work, I found that this was a common problem with the game. Patch release notes from the developers said this had been fixed in a 1.8.0 release, but that didn’t seem to be the case for me. I looked around, but there are no more available updates, and I was playing the 1.8.0 version of the game.
I found this highly frustrating as I was just starting to get into the ‘storyline’ and relishing the chance to tackle bigger tanks and see what else the game had in store. During my investigations above, I saw what looked like a huge commercial aquarium/Sealife center set up, which I can only imagine is great fun to look after.
Final Thoughts on Aquarist
I wanted to enjoy Aquarist, and I did. I had a great time playing the game, but a breaking bug so early on ruined it for me.
I hope the developers fix this save box issue because I certainly want to play more. Aquarist has a sedate and addictive quality to it and deserves more of my time.
Should the fixes come in good time, I will happily append this review with a further update. However, for now, my score has to reflect the game in its current state, which is, for lack of a better term, largely unplayable.
Rapid Reviews Rating
2.5 out of 5
You can buy your copy of Aquarist from the Microsoft Xbox store today.
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.