My partner cursed at me today, and Aqua Lungers is to blame. I don’t think it was meant maliciously, mind you, but it probably had something to do with the fact that I was attacking her with a spear to steal all her hard-earned treasure for my own chest.
Aqua Lungers released on PC in 2019 but has finally made its way to Nintendo Switch. It follows in the vein of other party games making the move from PC to console, such as Overcooked and Towerfall: Ascension, and promises a fun couple of hours ideally enjoyed with friends around a couch. The premise is fairly straightforward— up to four players take on the role of cartoon divers, swimming down to the depths to find treasure, bring it back to the surface, and place it in chests to reach a level-winning total. Challenge is provided by the enemies on the map; killer fish fill the waters, and snapper turtles roam the land, all looking to take a bite out of you in order to take your findings and your limited supply of lives. When those lives run dry, each subsequent death costs you treasure, a clever mechanic that makes preservation as important as making it back to your chest with a wad of gold. Special item unlocks, such as shields, harpoons and dynamite, can be acquired around the level in addition to your standard and charged spear attacks.
The game has to be played with a control pad, even on PC, but this would be the preferred way to play anyway. The controls are smooth and easy to learn, with buttons assigned to jump, attack, toss treasure, use and switch between special items. The only complaint here is the constant pressing of the jump button to swim faster, aping the worst swimming mechanic from a long history of side-scrolling platformers. A stamina bar or longer delay between button presses would have eased this frustration.
Each level is also occupied by a boss monster that lurks in the deep. These monsters have fun designs, ranging from a snarling, pink octopus to an ice-covered walrus, and they join an endearing visual aesthetic throughout the game. This isn’t a low budget indie party game with pixel visuals, Aqua Lungers has crisp and fun models and readable environments to play in. There are some nice attention to detail flourishes, like your lifeless head floating around in the water even after you respawn. Bosses are unkillable until a final boss fight round but always pose a threat by killing divers to accumulate their own gold. This adds a degree of complexity that many other party-style games don’t have: The game itself is playing against you. A level can be entirely lost if the boss monster accumulates the treasure total before you do. This isn’t well sign-posted to the player until later on in the game, so this can surprise newcomers who fall victim to it before reaching this tool-tip. Players battle through three time-rush modes against the boss before a final confrontation, where it is given a health bar and can finally be defeated.
This brings about an element of co-operation for Aqua Lungers, even where you might otherwise be playing competitively against one or more local friends. Focus too much on gathering your own treasure (or attacking your partner to steal theirs), and you risk the boss gathering too much treasure by being left unchecked. Conversely, focus too much on fighting the boss, and you risk dying and losing your own treasure through respawn costs. This back and forth leads to a dynamic and frenetic underwater fight that treads a tightrope between being engaging and being unfair. The game progresses around a campaign overworld map as new levels, areas, and bosses are unlocked for play. Later bosses become more dangerous, harder to hit, and will insta-kill in a single strike. The frantic fun that comes from battling friends in a race for treasure falls to the wayside in these later levels as the boss becomes the only focus. This is disappointing as the variety of bosses and their different attacks add flavour to the maps, but the difficulty makes these later boss fights less enjoyable as a group. Fortunately, settings can be tweaked between levels, including adding time limits, changing treasure victory limits, and even switching between unlocked bosses, but this never quite offsets the frustration at bosses that can insta-kill, sometimes even from off-screen.
Functionally, Aqua Lungers can be played through single-player, and this is a key point of the marketing for the game. Played this way, the increasing boss difficulties make more sense, and bosses are a lot more manageable where you can use an unhindered hit and run tactic. However, single-player isn’t where Aqua Lungers excels as, without the chaos of extra players, the game is fairly simplistic, and in many levels the boss can simply be avoided. Local split-screen multiplayer allows either co-operative play (against other players or against the boss), 1v1 or 2v2 competitive, or up to 4-player free-for-all. Competitive play is by far the most appealing way to enjoy Aqua Lungers, whether that’s locally on PC or Switch or via Steam’s Remote Play Together feature. Chasing down friends to rob the treasure they’ve just acquired before they can cash it in is a trick that never gets old— unless you’re the victim! Poking friends with your spear or launching a dynamite in their direction provides the same kind of yelling-and-laughing-on-your-sofa fun that contemporaries Bomberman and SpeedRunners offer. That’s no bad thing— Aqua Lungers is a game that you’ll want to whip out whenever you have some friends over, and the short campaign overworld serves to unlock new arenas and weapons to enjoy that time with.
Developer: WarpedCore Studio
Publisher: WarpedCore Studio
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 9th August 2019 (PC), 21st May 2020 (Nintendo Switch)
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Aqua Lungers was supplied by the publisher.