Now is a time where all of us are concerned about the health and safety of ourselves and our planet. The impact we have on our planet is a profound one and it can make us wonder whether we should travel the stars. What would we do to those planets? Do we deserve to populate the universe? These are the questions In Other Waters has, however, it doesn’t seem to want to answer them.
In Other Waters was developed by Jump Over The Age and published by Fellow Traveler and was released on April 3 for Nintendo Switch and PC. The PC version was played for this review.
Secrets of the Deep
I have always found the idea of alien worlds fascinating. At the same time, I am entranced by Earth’s very own oceans. Both are largely unexplored and hide secrets that we simply can’t fathom. This made me particularly intrigued by In Other Waters. Exploring an alien ocean in search of a missing friend is a pretty captivating idea to me. And that idea is pretty wonderfully told.
In Other Waters conceit is an interesting one, even if it isn’t entirely realized. Dr. Ellory Vas, a Xenobiologist, arrives on planet Glies 667Cc in search of her friend. But, you don’t play as Dr. Vas, instead you play as the mystery artificial intelligence that inhabits her diving suit. Your job is to help her navigate these foreign waters.
Initially, Dr. Vas is very unsure of you and your intentions. Through dialogue, you get to decide how you respond to her. These options are limited to either a positive or negative response. The consequences of these choices don’t seem to be clear and I began to wonder if I was really having any impact on the story at all.
That is both a blessing and a curse for In Other Waters. The story of a scientist slowly unraveling the truth behind the human impact on an alien ecosystem is fascinating. But the choice to make the player an almost passive character in the whole event is a confusing one and I never felt I had much agency over Dr. Vas’s decisions.
A lot of these issues come down to the way the game plays. All movement is done by the AI. You scan the surrounding area for anything from clear paths through the sea, living creatures swimming around, to any organic material that can be obtained in order to learn more. The AI’s control over Dr. Vas’s diving suit makes it kind of unnecessary to even separate the two characters.
The other issue is that this is the entirety of the gameplay loop. While there are keyboard shortcuts, the entire game can be played with the mouse and you’ll only really click on three or four different menu buttons in order to complete your tasks. With the exception of adding new tools to the diving suit, In Other Waters remains pretty static through its roughly four hour play time. That may not be a huge issue for some, but this monotony is difficult to get over particularly in the first hour. This is largely caused by a complete lack of guidance as to how the game works.
In Other Waters tries to tell the player how it works purely through story and dialogue, but it doesn’t succeed in doing that more often than not. Your intuition may help you figure out how the game’s menus work but I just don’t believe that should be the player’s responsibility. In the moments the game does tell you what to do, if you miss that single line of dialogue you may end up lost for a while. I’ve certainly played games with worse instructions but I simply cannot forgive a game that makes very little attempt to help you play it.
For me this was equally exacerbated by In Other Waters’ aesthetic. At first, I found the graphics of In Other Waters very pleasant. Its simplistic blend of turquoise and yellow is easy on the eyes. As I grew frustrated with the way it controlled, I grew equally frustrated with its appearance. There are occasional changes in brightness through its playtime, but otherwise In Other Waters is consistently bland.
All of this just makes me feel like I’m playing an early concept for what could be a much bigger game. With no voice acting, minimal music, and equally simple sound effects, the whole experience becomes hypnotizing and not in a good way.
This all sounds like I didn’t enjoy In Other Waters at all but that actually isn’t true. This is a unique and sometimes even a wondrous experience. In Other Waters is a perfect example of why independent game development is so important to the ecosystem. The ideas these developers have are fantastic and important to gaming and this is an experience I wasn’t going to get anywhere else.
That being said, it is impossible to ignore some of In Other Waters’ most glaring flaws. As much as I’m willing to sacrifice depth in gameplay for a satisfying story, I should never feel frustrated as much as I did while playing this. For those of you who may not be bothered by these issues to the degree I was, I think you will find an engrossing and even satisfying experience. I couldn’t help but find myself excited about what I was going to discover next, but I just couldn’t get past some of In Other Waters’ more cumbersome aspects.
Review copy provided by Fellow Traveler for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Fellow Traveler.