Review – Aquarist (Switch)

I have a lot of purposes in life. I am a teacher, a father, a husband, a game reviewer and a person of interest. When it comes to game reviews, I want to be honest for my own experience and for my perspective. I do not seek out games to purposely tank reviews, and, inversely, I also don’t give fluff grades to games based on personal preferences. As a result, I try my best to avoid certain games that I have prejudices towards, or that I cannot review to the greatest degree of satisfaction. First person shooters were my bread and butter when I was younger, but my equilibrium changed and now I can do maybe five minutes of something first person before I’m down with nausea and a headache for the next fifteen. You understand your own limitations, you set the bar, and you go from there.

Yet when I look in the mirror, what do I see? A ghost, or merely what remains?

Same for simulation games. For the most part, I find them deeply unpleasant and boring, as I look towards games as a form of escapism. I pick up and assume the roles of fantasy heroes, insane criminals and naughty schoolgirls, and a combination of the three is always welcome. I never got the appeal even back in elementary school, where everyone was rocking Sim City 2000 and I was just trying to figure out how to pass typing class so I would never have to think about it again. My one exception has been the Princess Maker franchise, and that’s because the fantasy/role playing element wins me over, not to mention its tied to a happier time in my life. But running farm equipment, driving big rig trucks, power washing cars…none of it appeals to me. It all sounds tedious.

Yet I wanted to give Aquarist a real shake, because it looked promising. My family had a long history of raising fish, and we were in possession of something ludicrous like a 150 gallon tank at one point. It was always relaxing to see the fish, and I did my part to help with the cleaning and feeding, plus general regulations and keeping the fish safe from my other pets (living in the countryside affords certain benefits, like having multiple critters). And the raves for Aquarist on Steam have been genuine: people who love the attention to detail and the variety of fish and tanks, plus the finer details of gravel, plants and additional decorations. It seemed to be a very realistic, engaging sim, and I welcomed the chance to pick up and run a potentially relaxing simulator on my Switch Lite, so I took a chance.

I’ve been living in this room for eternity. If the fish do not give me escape, I fear I will never know “life.”

Aquarist is incredibly generous and forgiving from the very start, where the first few tanks you make are with a hugely generous budget given to you by your dead eyed father. After you run through the very, very detailed list of what you can and cannot do to your initial tank, you then are asked and tasked with putting together a tank for your parents, which beings a long journey through different areas and tanks. From what I can tell, you eventually even get to oversee and maintain a full fledged aquarium, complete with exotic fish and much larger aquatic mammals, which must be truly exciting to behold if you have the goddamn patience and time to get that far.

Father enters, carrying promise. Yet it’s empty hope is as barren as his failing hairline.

Putting it bluntly, this game should not be on the Nintendo Switch. The idea of Aquarist speaks of this sprawling, engaging world where you can gradually increase your world through raising and breeding fish, taking over whole rooms of your house with bigger and bigger fish tanks and even more detailed scenarios. It takes only a moment to fathom what kind of power is going to be needed by a system to emulate tens or more fishes of different size, species and habits to move around, independently, in a dynamic system. The draw distance does help to carry some of the weight when you step away from the aquarium, but getting close you don’t just see the seams: you see the bones underneath and realize the Switch cannot hack this.

Mother’s judgement comes not just to the player,, but to her creator: a dead clownfish is the perfect metaphor.

It’s a depressing thing to say aloud, but it’s also not a secret. The Nintendo Switch has been on the market for over five years now, and Aquarist has been in Early Access since December of last year. The game wasn’t carefully designed and planned for the Nintendo Switch or there was a miscommunication about the strength and abilities of the hybrid console. This feels like it was a terrible idea that was spurred on by either high demand from fans who thought this would be an excellent mobile experience, or by the misplaced conception that anyone will buy anything when it comes to the eShop. Don’t get me wrong, the price tag is incredibly appealing, but it only takes a second to see how quickly things go wrong in the game.

The fish quickly learn the fastest way to escape the cycle: the player has no such option.

Let’s step away from the graphics for a moment: we always knew that a game that looks gorgeous on a 4K display from a PC with a massive graphics card wouldn’t look as good on the Switch. Instead, let’s talk about the core of Aquarist. It’s a first person sim that needs you to constantly buy and utilize items. When you buy something, it doesn’t appear in your inventory or anything like that. It magically spawns somewhere in your vicinity, usually on a table, a shelf, or the like.

If you buy multiple things, they all spawn there, next to and on top of each other, and from there you need to choose one, pick it up, and then use it wherever it needs to. For things like fish and plants, this is simple enough, though you might be frustrated trying to get them in the right spot that you’d like with joystick controls. But when it comes to tools that need to be used over and over, you need to pick them up, use them, and then try to put them back in the right place for easy access, which usually means dropping them on the floor in front of where you’d like them to be.

The shovel could be the key to strike at my captors and find freedom. Alas, it is ineffectual at even simple tasks.

Additionally, trying to target a specific region usually is hard because the renticule is surprisingly tiny and it cannot be changed. If you need to inspect one fish to see what you need to keep it from dying, then you’d best pray it’s not near another fish, a plant or literally anything else that you might accidentally zero in upon.  This kind of special hell really bled in early when you needed to put water filters and heaters in good zones to maintain a positive aquatic environment and I kept putting the heater above the water line, rendering it useless. It was good enough when it came time to scrape algae off the walls or to do larger forms of upkeep, but you start small and get even more micro with more space.

The façade gives the illusion to the fish they are somewhere better. Whiskey does the same to the player.

So now you’re locked in the loop of Aquarist in which you put in plants, soil, gravel and what have you, then put in fish, then QUICKLY figure out what you need to add to keep the fish from dying. Let’s be clear: the fish don’t die very fast, I think their lifespan within inhospitable waters is pretty decent. The problem is that you’re lumbering around in first person mode, tripping over whatever you’ve left on the floor and attempting to figure out what you’ve selected in the menu, because the highlighted areas are barely different than the unselected areas and you end up just fumbling around, ordering another two seahorses before getting back to where the tools are.

By the time you have more food, the fish are dead, now you need to scoop those out and throw them in the trash can or the toilet. You can’t even do cheap laughs like throw the dead fish at your creepy family or smash the balcony window in frustration with a shovel. You’re in aquarium purgatory, and you’ll never get to heaven if you don’t get with the program.

No matter how many times I step into the shower, the game refuses to wash me clean of the sins.

Lastly, there is no way to save the game at any point. Aquarist has a dedicated series of autosave checkpoints that come after successfully finishing an aquarium setup and not a second earlier. This makes me exceedingly stressed and also defeats a lot of the pick-up-and-play appeal of the Nintendo Switch. Setting up an aquarium can potentially take hours, especially with repetitive tasks and precise targeting. Meaning you need to forego other games until you are completely finished and also understand that this is all you’ll be doing for a while. There is apparently an endless mode after the main game has been completed, but how is that even possible if that game can’t remember that I’ve already replaced the water in the tank and spent far too long coordinating the right place for my sea trash?

Hear me.

Combined with a janky score of short sound effects and repetitive muzak, it was just so unpleasant to try and get through Aquarist. What kills me is that I know this game is for someone, and it looks like the Steam version is definitely scratching the itch they’d like. But, on Steam, devs can do frequent updates, hot paches, and it’s labeled Early Access still. It has wiggle room and can be forgiven for mistakes. This is a fully formed digital release on the most profitable console on the planet at this time. It has nothing for no one, and I’m just sad that someone probably will play this in an attempt to make life a bit better. Bad news, mate: this fish is dead in the water.

Graphics: 4.0

While some sprites are rendered clean, a lot of the draw distance limits the full scope of the aquarium even from the beginning.

Gameplay: 2.0

Buy stuff. Use stuff. Sell stuff. Repeat. Hope that you keep fish alive long enough to turn a profit.

Sound: 3.0

Boring sound effects and music that almost sounds like a parody of itself, the appeal is clearly not the music but it still exists and it’s not great.

Fun Factor: 1.0

All I can say is that I envied those dead fish.

Final Verdict: 2.0

Aquarist is available now on Steam and Nintendo Switch.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

A copy of Aquarist was provided by the publisher.