While nowhere near the pandemic-level spread of roguelikes, metroidvania numbers have been swelling steadily over the last couple of years, including some fairly accomplished recent titles like Axiom Verge, Odallus: The Dark Call and Ori and the Blind Forest. It’s a crowded market and YCJY has decided, quite boldly, to raise both eyebrows and expectations by describing their latest game as a hybrid of the subgenre’s traditional design principles and the distinctive pacing and mood of PS2 classic Shadow of the Colossus.
What The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human shares with Fumito Ueda’s masterpiece is the melancholy of a solitary journey in an entrancingly desolate world, its beauty emphasizing the awareness that in this land of majestic undersea giants you’re the invader and coating your violence with a veneer of guilt. The setting here is more familiar: our lonesome protagonist returns, after a millennia-long journey through a nearby wormhole, to a future Earth made strange by an extinction-level catastrophe that has wiped out the human race and submerged most of its surface.
Crashing through a block of ice and into the frozen waters, the last human has to voyage through a variety of frequently stunning 2D environments seeking out a series of mostly spectacular, protracted boss fights. The game looks fantastic despite its humble indie roots, especially when it’s all zoomed out, the scale of each area (not to mention the occasional passing cetacean) dwarfing your vessel. Areas are sharply differentiated: the wild, swaying tangle of vegetable mass of Seaweed Forest, home to the most garish shades of yellow and pink in the visible spectrum, clashing with the sunken stadiums and still-transmitting megascreens of the Crossroads whose towering structures are slowly reclaimed by the sea and teeming with the activity of a myriad denizens from glowing jellyfish to darting shoals of tiny, colorful fish. Its bosses are even more effectively designed, striking the right balance between awe-inspiring and sympathetic.
Locating those is not as risk-free a proposition as with Shadow of the Colossus. While there are no battles outside of the boss fights, the environments of The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human can prove quite deadly to the careless voyager. Granted, its algae encrusted clams, live mines and various projectile-vomiting aquatic plants do not make serious demands on player skill, but they do prohibit a sightseer’s approach to navigation.
In typical metroidvania fashion, the relatively short game (a full playthrough should take around 6-8 hours) unfolds over a series of upgrades which gradually unlock previously inaccessible areas. You start out with a single harpoon installed underneath your vessel (thus restricting its effectiveness to targets below it) which may be employed as an offensive weapon as well as a means of activating certain pressure pads and pulleys. Upgrades include an invaluable thruster allowing for sudden bursts of speed, a couple of extra weapons and a lamp for negotiating the pitch-black depths.
As valuable as these are for purposes of exploration, however, the harpoon is by far the most versatile weapon and will remain most players’ go-to offensive option throughout. Harpoon shots are charged: the longer the attack button is held, the farther their range. It’s a simple mechanic but adds considerable depth to combat as it enables different approaches; depending on personal playing style and the specifics of each boss battle, you may choose to hang back defensively for calculated long-range attacks or risk an approach for a close-range barrage. As most contact not only damages you but also launches you uncontrollably towards potential death, the latter option is better reserved for special conditions or a foe’s final health reserves.
Boss fights deserve some elaboration, since they provide the meat of the gameplay. Thankfully, most of them are more than a simple matter of aiming for the weak spot and dodging. Combat often requires the use of different weapons for specific functions (the saw is great for cutting off weakened tentacles, for example), exploiting the environment and prioritizing threats – if you’re gonna get damaged, at least make sure it’s by a projectile that won’t propel you straight into the behemoth’s mouth. They’re usually tense, drawn out affairs and they often change midway through to keep players on their toes. The creatures themselves are brilliantly presented: the Chain Gang, a school of sharks led by a colossal specimen dragging two huge mines bound to its tail, intermittently illuminated by a slowly flashing lighthouse and the eerie Experiment, a technologically “augmented” giant ray floating around the ruins of a former medical facility are particular highlights. Still, a couple of the later fights are disappointingly easy – as visually terrifying as the otherworldly False Light is, it can be easily defeated on the first attempt. They’re not many but, in a game basically consisting of eleven boss fights, even those two or three instances put a significant dent in its longevity.
A few other issues hurt the overall experience. Text is an eyesore harking back to the EGA days of PC gaming, an inexplicable flaw in such a visually-polished title. The actual textual content is even worse, a series of cringeworthy snippets of eco awareness with all the subtlety of high school activism, its militancy even more paradoxical in a game that rewards you for slaughtering one hundred of its non-threatening fauna with an achievement. The flaw is doubly unfortunate since the message is, in fact, conveyed much more convincingly in non-verbal ways, most notably in the chilling encounter with The Experiment. Finally, as indeed was the case with Shadow of the Colossus, there will be the inevitable dull stretch or two when one starts wandering around uncertain where to go next.
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human may have its share of flaws, but is a highly original and mostly enjoyable entry into the increasingly congested metroidvania subgenre. That it would acquire some of its inspiration’s inherent flaws was inevitable; that it would manage to replicate, even partly, the experience of traversing a hauntingly beautiful world populated by majestic creatures and generate a similar sense of guilt in destroying them, marks it already as a success.