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Killer Apps: Games That Killed Their Developers – Hydrophobia

The developers at Square-Enix sometimes say that the title was a joke. Their studio had just enough money to make one more game and if it wasn’t a hit, it would be their last. Thus, this fantasy game was called Final Fantasy. Lucky for them, the game was a huge hit that spawned a lucrative franchise. Many other game companies who put all their eggs in one final basket aren’t so lucky. Such is the case with Dark Energy Digital, makers of Hydrophobia.

Hydrophobia was the first and only game made by the company. These unfortunate people sunk years into creating their own game engine to support the unique water-centric gameplay of the game they dreamed of making and when they finally had the right tools, they created their opus.

Hydrophobiareleased on Xbox Live to well-deserved dismal reviews. The original version had plenty of problems in terms of controls, level design and storytelling—not to mention the NPC responsible for delivering all of the exposition spoke like a Welshman having a stroke. 

But, Dark Energy Digital listened to the bad reviews and feedback from players. They set about tweaking the game and put out a patch to address many of these issues, and they re-titled it, “Hydrophobia Pure.” That game didn’t too well either

And so, the gang went back to the drawing board for a final shot at turning Hydrophobia into a great game, redesigning the levels and releasing it on the PS3 and PC as “Hydrophobia Prophecy." That game burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. That was the final straw for the Hydrophobia series and developer Dark Energy Digital is now out of business. 

Despite the many bad reviews, Hydrophobia isn’t such a bad game, and the Hydroengine that powers it is impressive. The game is a mixture of third-person adventure and shooting with a heavy emphasis on climbing and swimming and is set in a future where humans have overpopulated the Earth. One group of visionaries have built a self-sustaining city that sails the oceans, leaving dry land to be covered in a carpet of starving people. This utopia is attacked by a group of terrorists who are out to deal with the overpopulation problem by killing off just about everyone on Earth. An inside gag for population-control advocates is that the terrorists are called “Neo-Malthusians.”

Even though the story has some intriguing ideas behind it, it isn’t well developed, bringing only a handful of characters and very little dialog outside of “go find the key” exposition. It also has an extremely abrupt ending. It isn't even a cliffhanger. It just... stops. Players control an athletic engineer named Kate who is an expert swimmer and climber and must make her way around a sinking ship by climbing, jumping and swimming through heavily damaged and flooded areas.  

After the first third of this three-hour-long game Kate finally gets a gun. It’s a deliberately under-powered weapon that forces the player to fight enemies indirectly by shooting objects in the environment. This is where that fancy new game engine comes in handy. The Hydroengine uses water in nifty new ways, allowing players to shoot through glass and bulkheads so that huge waves of water come crashing down on enemies. 

There are also the standard exploding barrels, but in Hydrophobia, these barrels release flaming oil that floats on the surface of the water and can be used to burn enemies that weren’t in the initial blast radius. There are also electric cables that can be shot, sending them down to electrocute enemies below. This turns out to be fairly easy because of the dirt-dumb AI controlling the bad guys. They’ll pretty much just blunder into hazards and never seem to think of shooting barrels even when Kate is standing on a pile of them.

With the interesting concept and unusual mechanics, it’s easy to see how the developers would be overly optimistic about their game, and blind to its flaws. No doubt they were sincere in their belief that with just one more refinement, Hydrophobia will become a "perfected blockbuster." Maybe they were right and it would have all come together with one more revision, but they didn’t have the opportunity to put one last egg in that basket. The IP rights are being sold off, so if the games sell well, fans might still see a sequel, even it it’s made by someone else, and the engine will most likely be used to make other games in the future. 

Hydrophobia Pure is still available on Xbox Live and has been marked down to just five dollars. Hydrophobia Prophecy is likewise marked down on Steam and PSN. As budget games, they make a much more enticing offer and it only takes a few hours to suffer through the ordeal.


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