The pitch is very simple: Aquarist allows you to decorate, run and manage your own aquarium in a virtual career pet simulation. This all starts off in your bedroom on your 16th birthday where you’re introduced to your character. You’ve already been given a name and gender, so don’t expect any character customisation. There’s only fish and tanks to customise here, people.
I’ve got to admit straight from the off that I very much was not sure how this game was going to pan out. it immediately felt quite janky to control. You can walk around as your protagonist wherever you please. You start in your own bedroom but will eventually venture to bigger and better fish tanks, but for now it is important to learn the ropes.
Aquarist does a decent job of showing players what needs to happen. A lot of simulators can be quite detailed and on a console with all of so many buttons, anything that is going to be overly complex is just not going to work. A white ridicule will act as your cursor as you navigate through your new found career.
Aquarist works by mostly giving you small tasks to achieve, these tasks will later become a list of objectives to fully complete your aquarium. It starts out simple, with adding rocks to your tank, cleaning up filters, adding lamps, and decorations to fully monitoring hunger levels and temperature. I’ve got to say I did appreciate this acting like a to-do list to tick off. Admittedly, that squeegeeing algae off of the sides of the tanks is immensely satisfying. It does have a flavour of feeling like your erasing something off of Microsoft paint, but it is relaxing nonetheless.
One really strange thing is not everything is introduced right at the start, like things are introduced out of order. For example, there wasn’t a zoom button for ages, so I felt like I was doing all the tasks with unnecessary distance, considering I was working with such a small tank in a small space. It makes the environment feel completely out of scale until you progress further in your story.
Everything Has Its Plaice
The game holds a big focus on the decoration of your tank at first, and this is extremely relaxing and actually has a lovely element of gameplay to it. Once you’re used to all of the controls, players can have a range of decorations and plant life to add to the tank, as well as choosing what type of stone is laid, what colour the aquarium is and even where everything is placed.
Players can choose between having a saltwater tank or a freshwater tank, and with each tank comes its own arsenal of decorations and fish. In real life, putting a goldfish in a saltwater tank will kill it. This is no different and the Aquarist provides detail down to the very degree of temperature when looking after live animals.
Each species of fish has their own stats, and will have the desired amount of plants, decorations and company for their new habitat. It is your job to not only decorate these aquariums but also keep each and every resident happy. If the temperature is wrong, fish will slowly die and your habitat will become… well… inhabitable.
Once your out of bedroom tutorial land, the game moves you on to fix up Dad’s old aquarium in the living room. You’ll be using your new found skills but doing very similar things. No complaints here as there’s nothing worse than being dropped in the deep end with lots of controls to manage. Due to how much there is to actually do before getting fish in, it still offers an element of relaxation when doing the same thing on bigger tanks. Eventually you learn enough in feeling very confident to do this over and over again, following the same steps in a sort of routine.
As you complete each tank and each area, you will level up. The levelling system unlocks more fish to manage, more decorations such as mechanical chests, and more coral and plants for your fish to enjoy. Additionally you will be able to unlock more decor for your own environment such as flooring, wall paint and plants to make everything your own.
Your character will eventually open their first shop in their garage and the game really kicks off from there. It’s unusual that what is considered quite a relaxing game for the first few hours, really increases the tempo from here on out.
Once the shop opens you are in charge of creating aquariums for your guests to look at and to buy from. You do have the option to sell the whole aquarium as one, but if you leave it open to the shop then consumers will only buy the contents of your aquarium. From the garage comes luxury shops to the mothership of the Oceanarium.
The garage is where Aquarist starts to pick up the pace. Every day you are given a few hours before opening to restock your shop or flesh out your shop with many different types of aquarium and types of fish. You don’t really want to be putting sharks among the guppy fish now do you? They will become fish food. The time of day is noted in the top hand corner, ticking down till opening time. You have that limited time to make sure everything is in order. There is no way to pause this time, and if you open the store late, less customers will consume your goods.
On one hand, It does become quite a race to try and make wonderful aquariums when you first have an empty shop, or a new extension opens to fill up with more tanks. As well as restocking whatever may have sold. The more lavish your shop gets, the more customer satisfaction you grow, the more money you earn. However, the more customers buy, the more there is to restock.
The actual customer section is a cut scene, so any restocking can only be done in this dreaded time count from doom. There were days where I would just wait until the clock went down because I had nothing to do, or what I did have to do took mere seconds. There is no equilibrium with this either as you go to bigger area’s, and no way to control your own time, whether pausing or fast forwarding when ready. It felt like a weird turn of events given the relaxing focus in the levels before.
Oh for Heaven’s Hake!
The porting from PC to Switch is really poor in places with the disjointed relationship between keyboard and mouse to joystick and face buttons, and the jankiness does kind of remain throughout The Aquarist. I couldn’t tell if it’s the console or the game, but interacting with anything small with the cursor is a nightmare. You will spend ages trying to accurately aim to grab something whilst it flickers past, or does not register you want to hold that item. If your fish are small, really the best hope you have is to keep your cursor still and hope they swim by or it feels like a laser pen and cat situation. For a game where part of the main premise is to make sure your fish are happy, and the only way to do that is by clicking on them to see their stats it felt there could have been an alternative way to do this.
This extends to placing backgrounds on your fish tank, the game would rarely register I wanted it on the backwall of my aquarium so on multiple occasions, I completely blocked off any view to my own aquarium. Which seems pretty funny, but considering I had no way to delete it, I had spent 10 minutes decorating a beautiful aquarium just to sell the whole thing and be no better off for my shop.
The inventory section of the game feels quite useless – the mechanics and controls of the game almost encourage you to drop everything as opposed to holding it in your inventory. Eventually you are offered shelving to place all your items which is significantly easier than fiddling with switch bumper buttons to constantly make sure you are not holding something or automatically holding something when you’ve dropped something else. If you’ve bought more than one fish, it feels easier to go back and forth to drop them in your tank, than play around with trying to put them in your inventory and get them.
There are a couple of visual distortions in The Aquarist too. The neighbour’s face looked like nightmare fuel at one point, but then when getting closer and the textures popped in, she looked sweet as a mouse. Apart from this, there were no crashes or any system bugs, just frustrating ailments that likely are due to this being on the Switch. I will say that it does help to have this hooked up to your TV, and the game is more difficult handling wise to play handheld give the controls.
With all that said, there is a great game behind these issues. The flaws are frustrating but the game is fun to play in a lot of places. The game is complemented by a jazz soundtrack, which at first I thought was a bold play but it actually really works among the relaxing elements of the game. The Aquarist is for those not worried about specific detail being level breaking, or score reducing, but still want a realistic time with a new career at hand.
Aquarist is a fine addition to the career simulator genre, although there are some optimisation issues on the Switch with some ill-fitted control problems and and fiddly mechanics. Behind these flaws though there is a casual, fun game that has a lot to offer.
Aquarist is available on Steam and Nintendo Switch (review platform).
Developer: FreeMind Games
Publisher: FreeMind Games / PlayWay
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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