Short, sweet, and a little melancholy, The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (TAAotLH) is probably one of the shortest games I’ve ever played but will likely be one of the most memorable. Short games aren’t always a bad thing, either; there’s something to be said for a simple game that knows what it’s about. Equal parts Metroidvania, Bullet-Hell and Dark Souls-style combat, TAAotLH carries a sense of tense exploration and morbid discovery throughout. Although light on story, what’s there is certainly captivating and this is supported by a fantastic soundtrack that almost perfectly compliments every environment and situation. Who’d have thought I’d enjoy a game that’s entirely a water-level?
LoZ: OoT has a lot to answer for in that regard.
The game begins with your character being flung from the Earth and into a nearby vortex in space, with the years ticking away faster and faster until you reappear in the year “Who the hell knows?” Plummeting towards the planet, your craft (which handily doubles as a submersible) smashes through the frozen surface and into the dangerous waters beneath. Exploring the ruins of a vast, underwater civilisation, you’ll quickly learn that any trace of actual humans have entirely disappeared, and your self-assigned mission is to discover how it happened. Naturally, since there are no people around to recount it to you, this is done through environmental nuance, the classic trope of journal logs left behind, and some big freaking monsters.
Beneath the surface (pun totes intended), there’s a lot of themes at work within the events of the game. The idea of climate change, how it will affect us, how we’ll react, and if we even deserve to survive through it are all touched upon in their own vague ways. Things get a little metaphysical at points, and although I don’t think this was the main intention of the game it does provide a deeper layer to the story for players to ponder. The level of detail in the story isn’t exactly high, however, and this plays into a sense of “less is more.” I think the game would have suffered more from trying to explain too much and, as it stands, it allows the player to fill in the blanks with their imagination.
And as regular readers would know, my imagination is already somewhat dark.
As previously mentioned, much of the game is simply spent exploring, and TAAotLH delivers in classic Metroidvania style. There’s a lot of backtracking through areas you’ve already visited but with new knowledge or upgraded equipment that allows you to reach previously unreachable areas. Aside from the minimal amounts of twin-stick shooter combat and a few non-mandatory upgrades, there really isn’t anything to distract players from this sense of exploration. Unless you’re the kind of person that absolutely needs to 100% a game (for which the game will duly reward you), you can explore without having to search every little nook and cranny.
It’s rare that I find a game in which I’d consider taking in the scenery as a significant part of the gameplay, but TAAotLH definitely fits that description. TAAotLH frequently mixes these moments of serenity with sudden, intense hostility. The boss battles are incredibly hectic and, far from being a hasty “copy-paste” job, each one feels unique and their very presence even builds upon the unspoken narrative. I’m not kidding about them being intense, either – during my many, many deaths, I could almost hear Nick whispering “git gud” over and over into my ear. I wouldn’t describe these fights as being “unfair,” either; there’s a pattern to be worked out for each one, and the game demands that you apply skills learned outside of combat.
If I strained my hearing, I could almost hear “f***iiiinnnggg caaassuuualll…” drifting softly through the currents.
There’s essentially no combat outside of the boss fights unless you count dodging past potentially sub-destroying environmental hazards, though you’re not exactly alone. The post-humanity oceans of Earth are brimming with all kinds of creatures and lifeforms, the majority of which are harmless and will quietly swim by you with nary a bump. It took me awhile to figure this out, however, since you can still kill most of these creatures and I did so with gusto because that’s just how I’ve been conditioned to roll. I’m sure that this was deliberately designed by the devs to makes players think about their actions, how they approach situations, and the assumptions they carry with them, and I believe that it’s well implemented.
The scenery of TAAotLH is stunning, with some excellent attention to detail in the environment design. Shadows of ruined structures and deep-sea flora will stand out in the foreground as you silently float by, with more detailed versions of the same sitting in the mid and background. The structures themselves have an aesthetic style that feels like a mixture of Bioshock’s Rapture, the Wrecked Ship of Super Metroid, and the impossibly massive mega-structures of Blade Runner. Likewise, the boss monsters that are scattered across this world don’t look or feel alien in these environments but are directly influenced by them. In the face of how easily they fit in with their surroundings, and the aggressiveness with which they try to destroy you, you quickly begin to feel like an invader in a place that’s no longer yours.
“You’ve come to the wrong neighborhood, human.”
Most importantly, there’s an almost tangible feeling of ancient decay that lingers around everything, and that doesn’t just relate to the ruined human-structures. When you consider the size of your own sub in comparison to the different creatures and monsters you encounter, you realise that all you encounter is much larger than it actually appears. It really highlights the impact of human civilisation on underwater life in this world and the moment it became frighteningly apparent was an enjoyable revelation for me. TAAotLH’s soundtrack definitely helps to carry this atmosphere throughout, alternatively melancholic and chaotic, really hammering home the dismal, isolation that the player character must be feeling.
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (TAAotLH) may not be very long but what’s here is exemplary of how a simple game can still be excellent. With little to no dialogue, TAAotLH manages to spin a tale of the ultimate futility of humanity’s attempts to survive in a world they can’t help but exploit. It leaves a lasting impression on the player – at least it’s left one on me. At no point does it attempt to over-complicate things by adding too many mechanics, or gameplay elements that don’t fit with the existing mechanics, and it’s a smooth ride to the end as a result. Pixel art games are a dime a dozen these days but TAAotLH employs a mix of simple and detailed art to nail some incredible visuals. The feeling of a ruined planet, destroyed and warped by the hubris of man, is almost palpable, and that’s always a trope that inspires fondness in me. If you’ve got some time to spare, I’d recommend diving into it yourself to soak up that post-apocalyptic melancholy.