There’s a certain expectation with post apocalyptic games of a glimmering ray of hope. You have miraculously survived some kind of event that’s torn the word asunder, and things are bleak, but, through hard work and sacrifice, there will be a new tomorrow. Even the self-titled painful RPG Lisa offers a modicum of potential that things could get better (though the road there is awful and harrowing). However, it takes a certain amount of artistic nihilism and appreciation for finality to present a title where there is no hope. Where nothing can possibly bring you back from the brink. The name of our game says it all: the human race is gone. You are the final being. Welcome to The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human.
Our protagonist is a successful astronaut who launched into space somewhere in the year 2971, hoping to find a solution to the rising waters, and got sucked into a wormhole. What happened next is difficult to say: maybe the pilot saw far reaches of galaxies unknown and star fields untouched. Maybe there was a glimpse into the face of God Himself. In any case, the spaceship emerges from the wormhole several millennia in the future, where the worst fears have come to pass for all of mankind. The world has been totally flooded, and the remains of civilization have corroded and sunk beneath the waves. Massive, undulating beasts have evolved from the already formidable sea life that once swam there, and the entire sphere now belongs to the waves. You aren’t sure what you’re looking for, but you need to find…something. A reason. A purpose. You have no choice but to survive. You are literally the last human. What else could there be except to find out why?
Aquatic Adventures of the Last Human is dubbed a metrovania title, but I think that’s because it’s often difficult to slot certain types of games. The core idea is certainly in line: you gradually are able to access more and more of the labyrinth as items, specifically weapons, are discovered. However, the pacing of the game is far and away different than most metrovanias. In comparison to something like Sundered, where you’re met with combat at almost every turn, the undersea life presents very, very few chances for hostility. Now, it’s not at the level of Abzu, not by a long shot. There are definitely angry, hungry beasts beneath the waves, and they are moments of dramatic and polarizing tone shifts. It almost feels like you’re playing two different games when it comes down to the chief experiences therein. The first is a calm, exploratory game, where you have no pressure in terms of time limits, resources or otherwise in order to drive you along. It’s literally your own investment and curiosity that dictates how thoroughly you investigate and how much you find out. The second is a madcap, terrifying set of boss battles, where evolution shows you just how much bigger and meaner it’s gotten since humanity drowned. Hell, the first boss you encounter is one of the worst simply because there’s no preamble: you have about one screen worth of time to understand how to use your new weapons before things go to hell.
The dichotomy of The Aquatic Adventures of the Last Human is what makes the game work so well as a short but meaningful indie title. YCJY seems to understand how to hook players with a combination of minimalist storytelling balanced with borderline bullet hell boss fights. You have no one to talk to, in any capacity, except for one sided tapes and reports that you find scattered throughout the ocean. Even they tell you very little, giving snippets and excerpts of what was going on as scientists and the civilians alike attempted to migrate to new undersea homes, planning to survive no matter what and not wanting to use too much exposition during the entire flight. Instead, you’re forced to piece things together through what you find, see and hear. And the pixel art aspect of the game really plays well with the underwater thematic. Everything is slightly blurry and hazy, like you’re constantly viewing it through a domed shield that’s been to space and back, and contains one very sad, very tired human. It helps to add to the ethereal element of being so many leagues away from the sun and the sky, and also makes it so the enormousness of the bosses comes into sharp and dangerous focus when they decide to rear their ugly heads.
The second main element of the game, the boss fights, leaves a bit to be desired in terms of the replay factor. Don’t get me wrong: they’re challenging as hell, and each has their own flair and monstrous identity to deal with. The Heart of the City, for example, is incredibly well designed and definitely took quite a while to understand before I was able to fully understand it. The Tranquil, by comparison, needed to take a bit of time to shoot down but was comparatively easy next to the previous boss (the Fathers) because I was able to discover the right places to settle down and shoot at my leisure. If you’re only interested in playing the game through in a vanilla facet, there seems to be a vanishing point where the difficulty of the game and your ability to “speed run” through things meet early on, and you don’t find as much time that you want to invest in order to get the timing down. Interestingly, in the opposite direction, I became more interested in further and further time dedicated to a run.
This is the secret sauce of The Aquatic Adventures of the Last Human (besides the gorgeously sad soundtrack): discovery. There are your usual discoveries, like a cleaner and faster pathway to get to where you want to go and what you want to do. But then there are hidden weapons, that are nearly essential to getting through later bosses (especially The Guardian). There are secrets that reveal different game modes, including the coveted Hardcore Mode. There are even nods and Easter eggs within that don’t currently do anything, but might have a greater purpose in the future. These secrets aren’t always obvious, and a few are obtuse to the point of insanity. I’m reminded of the infamous Braid star that could only be discovered if you’re willing to wait two hours for the level to progress. While the secrets here aren’t nearly to that level of unbelievable detail attention, there are a couple that require patience and thinking far, far outside the box.
When all is said and done, you’re left with an incredibly sobering and haunting piece of art that plays well, invites you on a Boss Rush (if you’re feeling funky) and definitely stands out as a strong, memorable game. The Aquatic Adventures of the Last Human makes a point to be something that really breaks away from traditional storytelling molds and delivers a solid experience from start to finish. While I don’t think I’ll be returning to this watery depth anytime soon, the game will stay on my Switch as a reminder. I can always come back if I’m feeling cocky to beat the game in Hardcore Mode, simply to prove I can do it without dying. And I’ll definitely want to revisit the score and the music overall. But the sadness is real. The world has ended. You can’t do a think to save it. Yet, just maybe, there could be something, someday, that’ll rend this waterlogged world into something beautiful again.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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