Review: Aquadine

26 Aug 2022

It’s been a while since I’ve played a true visual novel. By that, I mean a game that’s entirely text-based with no choices to make. There is something kind of nice about a title that has its own story to tell and just wants to do that, with the only deviation being who you want the story to focus on specifically. Given that I haven’t visited the genre in some time, I think the experience provided by Softcolors’ Aquadine was a good reintroduction.

Aquadine launched on August 26th, 2022 for the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch and was previously released for the PC last year. The Switch version was played for this review.

Love, Life, Mermaids

If I had to describe Aquadine’s story in one word, I would say that it’s wholesome. Ciel, whose real name is Robin, is a student by day and a gondolier (a person who gives tours on a boat) by night. He is living a double life in order to help pay for his mother’s hospital bills.

Along with Ciel’s personal story, Aquadine also focuses on the lore surrounding the town which the game pulls its title from. In short, the town use to be inhibited by mermaids after it was saved by a sea god named Levios (this story’s version of Poseidon) but after some human discrimination, the mermaids fled to their own kingdom and ceased to exist. 

These two premises are treated with equal importance and become especially intertwined during specific character routes, but regardless of who you choose, Softcolors does a really nice job of world-building before the routes diverge. You get a lot of information about your surroundings before it moves on to focus on the other aspects typically found in visual novels (i.e. ROMANCE). 

Now, I do feel the need to point out that Aquadine is a relatively short game. To me, this was both a good and bad thing, as on the one hand, it never felt like it was dragging on for too long. However, at times, this shortness did cause me to feel like the story wasn’t doing all it could to go deeper into the themes it was trying to explore.

For example, during certain moments that are meant to be emotionally hard-hitting, the issues are given no time to be impactful as they usually tend to be resolved at breakneck speed due to the time constraint. To be fair, most of the game’s more pressing issues are thoroughly addressed, but there is never a real conclusion to some other ones which is kind of frustrating. 

The romantic development between characters also suffers because of the shortness of the routes. For me, it just fell kind of flat to see two people claim undying love for each other when they’ve interacted a total of five times. To give an idea of how fast this goes in real-time, the relationship portion of the story happens after you choose a route, and each route is about two hours long, which is shorter than the intro itself. For a romance lover like me, this part of the game just didn’t feel very satisfying.

Despite the timing hiccup, I did feel like Aquadine was a positive read and enjoyed my time with it. It tries to explore a lot of themes that are meaningful, particularly those dealing with trust, friendship, self-identity, and love, and does a good job of leaving behind a positive message around each of them. I just wish the developers had taken more time to fully address specific things rather than cramming in a bunch of them.

Now, I can’t end this part of the review without touching on the Aquadine’s characters. The game has four main routes which explore the stories of each of Ciel’s friends. There’s Anya, the moody tsundere; Diana, the flirtatious airhead; Cameron, the rumbustious jock; and Elizabeth, the refined and new-to-town singer. These are, of course, general overviews of who they are, but in truth, their personalities are quite rich, something that becomes easily apparent the more you learn about them. I was actually surprised to discover the darker themes explored in their backstories, especially given how bright and colorful the game looks on the surface.

I also have to highlight how fun it is to see the main group of friends interact with each other, as well as just with Robin. Given that there are no dialogue choices, I was happy to see Robin had a full personality of his own both as Ciel and his real self that complimented everyone he spoke with.

The supporting cast also does a fantastic job of being fun and interesting in their own right. Banjo (the fat cat) is my favorite for a variety of reasons, but Grandpa and Mr. Norton had some very comical scenes both together and separately. Even more serious characters like Torrie (Ciel’s sick mother) are given developed personalities and plenty of time to shine. This detail might actually be one of my favorite things about this visual novel; the fact that even once you chose a route, most of the cast continues to show up and be relevant, making their presence meaningful and not only convenient at the start of the game.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, Aquadine does not have any gameplay. It’s a visual novel through and through. The layout itself is pretty typical, with only a hot bar for saving, reading the log, etc. You also have the option of reviewing your cutscenes and images on the home screen, but that’s pretty standard in games of this genre. One of the things I did appreciate is that you don’t have to go through the game’s intro again once you finish a route. It automatically prompts you to choose a different route once you make it through.

Mythical Vibes

Aquadine is a beautiful game. The art has a polished anime style that does the story justice, and the backgrounds are breathtaking (especially the mythical ones like ancient Aquadine and the jellyfish sky). I read on their site that Softcolors took inspiration from Venice for the design of the titular town and that is reflected in pretty much all of the background work. The use of color is also fantastic. Honestly, visually this game is a treat and I LOVED it. 

Unfortunately, I am not able to say the same about the audio. The music is pretty good (it boasts 25 tracks), but there was just something about it overall that I wasn’t a fan of. I did like some of the more eerie tracks, particularly the one that played at night when Ciel was out sculling as it really complimented the background. But for the most part, I mostly played the game on mute.

The music was only half at fault for this though. The other reason had to do with the game’s annoying voice acting. The ironic part is that it wasn’t even fully voiced, just partially, but to be honest, once you’ve heard the characters say one line you’ve heard it all. The developers used the same voice clips over and over, even when what the characters are saying doesn’t actually fit with the soundbite. This got irritating fast and caused me to not want to hear their voices at all after a while. 

Now, the next two things are minor gripes so bear with me. I really did not like the artistic choice of making the character sprites shake every time they spoke. I think this was meant to help visualize who was talking, but it was just weird and felt out of place. I really didn’t like it. Given how beautiful the game is, I wish they had just let the sprites shine on their own. 

My second gripe is….you guessed it. TYPOS! This game came out on PC last year so I’m not sure why there are still typos in the text, but they certainly exist and I hate how that is the case because otherwise, this visual novel feels pretty polished. I hope there will be a patch or something to address this later on.

Calming Tides

Given how hard the last few years have been, I have to admit that it felt nice to play a game with low stakes. I had forgotten how great it is to just enjoy titles without worrying about putting in countless hours or gaining levels. I was truly just there to enjoy a visual novel that had all of the necessary components for success; a well-rounded cast, a short yet engaging story, and beautiful art. 

Perhaps to some, Aquadine will come off as lacking any real urgency or sadness, but this is an opinion I would attribute to the game’s more mystical setting. If like me, you don’t mind the mythical and have a few hours to spare then this is exactly the right game for you.

Just beware of its $20 price point (I do feel this is a little much given how short it is) and the grating voice acting.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~ 

Review copy provided by Softcolors for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.