I feel like the more of these posts I write, the more inclined I am to describe games in terms of other games. But even without that, it would be hard to play The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, a metroidvania set in a system of beautiful undersea caverns, and not think of Aquaria.
Oh, it’s not the same as Aquaria. It’s shorter, it’s more pixelated, and the balance of gameplay is more tilted towards massive boss fights. And, most importantly, it’s far-future sci-fi instead of fantasy. The player character, who you never actually see, returns from a time-dilated space voyage in a sort of space submarine that doubles as a regular submarine, only to find that the human race has died out. This time around, when you find submerged ruins of a lost civilization, the lost civilization is ours. Douglas Adams once had a character come to understand the destruction of the Earth on a gut level by concentrating on just the destruction of McDonald’s. One room in this game has a wee pixelated McDonald’s as part of the background art. It has a similar effect.
It’s a bleak game. There is literally no hope of making things better. It’s far too late to save anyone. So instead you just pursue the implicit goals of the environment, exploring and fighting colossal sea monsters, and while you’re at it, why not torpedo some innocent fish? It’s not like there’s anyone around to care. Even challenging the bosses carries some sense of wantonness, destroying simply because you have nothing else to do. The one vaguely positive prospect is pursuing the mystery of what happened, finding recordings that give you gradual insight into how it all ended.
It all ended mainly because people couldn’t manage to cooperate on anything, even in the face of global catastrophe, instead polarizing into technocrats and eco-terrorists and devoting their efforts to fighting each other. Several of the bosses are relics of this time, monsters either man-made or inadvertently spawned, bearing witness to the sins of those they outlived. When the surviving humans eventually managed to build a vast machine capable of solving all their problems, it looked at the state of the world and decided humanity wasn’t worth saving. You confront this machine at the end, and it’s just as disappointed in you, for the destruction you’ve wreaked to get that far.
But for all its bleakness, it’s a pretty enjoyable game. It’s nice and explorey, and, as I’ve mentioned, has boss fights that truly give a sense of immensity. It strikes me that the underwater environment helps here: it gives the game an excuse to make movement in general slow, and that helps it to seem ponderous.