Released earlier this week, Megaquarium is the latest game to come from Twice Circled, the one-man developer responsible for the construction-puzzler indie hit Big Pharma. Those who have played Big Pharma will notice striking similarities within Megaquarium, particularly in the controls, graphics and UI. However, there are some major differences as well, and fans of a more traditional tycoon experience may be in for a few pleasant surprises. Now, on to the review!
First of all, I have a confession to make. I have a soft spot for tycoon games. All tycoon games. It doesn’t matter how bad I am at them (Cities XL quickly put an end to my city-planning career, and I have led more people to their deaths in the RCT series by concocting wildly dangerous and impractical roller coasters than I care to admit). There is no genre as calm and yet challenging as the tycoon genre for me; with its slow-paced design and decision-making processes contrasted by occasionally brutal objectives and race-against-the-clock goals, tycoons provide a unique experience that keeps me coming back for more.
With that out of the way, let’s dive right in to Megaquarium. Immediately upon booting up the game for the first time, you are prompted to partake in the tutorial. The very, very thorough tutorial. For gamers like myself, a comprehensive tutorial is a godsend. Nothing will start a game off on the wrong foot for me like being thrown into the middle of a combat scenario with not even so much as a ‘Press Spacebar to Pause’ prompt. While prone to slightly over explaining certain aspects, the tutorial does a fantastic job of providing an overview of controls, gameplay and mechanics while still giving you some freedom in how you design your aquarium.
After you complete the tutorial you are thrust into your very first campaign scenario with a clear set of goals and nothing more. It is entirely up to you to determine how to achieve those goals using the tools you were taught in the tutorial. No timeline, no hints. Just you and a world of aquatic critters that need your careful attention if you hope to succeed. Oh, and the soundtrack. Did I mention this game has a fantastic soundtrack? The song list is fairly short for now, however, and if you sink as much time as I have into the game you are bound to learn each of them quite intimately.
Upon getting my first fully-independent gameplay with Megaquarium, there are many positive elements that jump out at me. The graphics are enjoyable (cartoony, to be sure), the building options are wide-ranging but not overwhelming, and the sandbox nature of the game is instantly evident.
With one click of the mouse you can add or remove area to your aquarium to completely manipulate its layout. Open concept, a circular pathway or anything in between is obtainable. Aside from having just about every kind of fish tank you could imagine, with fish that require everything from certain water quality, temperature control, selective tank-mates and size restrictions, the game also requires you to hire enough staff to feed your animals, repair damaged machinery, clean up after messy guests and prioritize tasks among these staff to ensure that no task is left undone.
This may sound like a lot, but if you take your time (while the game is paused, optimally) to plan your layout, which fish will go where and ensure each requirement is met, you will soon find that your aquarium can operate largely on its own for a good amount of time, until updated campaign objectives require you to make further changes. This allows for long periods of relaxed play, with very few stressful situations, unless of course you doom one (or three) of your fish by accidentally dropping them into the same tank as a hungry predator. Sorry, little fellas.
Unfortunately, there are a few issues with Megaquarium that I must admit, do interrupt an otherwise serene experience. First, there are crashes. Roughly three during my first 5 hours of gameplay and one or two since then. It should be noted, however, that the dev has already made an announcement regarding the crashes and is pushing stability updates regularly at the time of this review.
Next, there is the options menu. Other than language, screen resolution and low, medium and high detail level, there are no options. No controls list for quick reference or key-rebinding. A similar lack of care was given to the difficulty levels. I understand that there are 4 difficulties (Easy, Normal, Hard and Brutal) but I am given no information as to what will change to make the game harder, or on what kind of scale. These may seem like nitpicky QOL issues but they can create a frustrating experience when you forget a hotkey or consistently use one that you then want to move to a more convenient location. The devil is in the details! Update: Keybinding has been added as of Sept. 16th (Frequent dev updates are a major bonus here).
Aside from the issues, Megaquarium lives up to its dev’s reputation for solidly enjoyable indie games, without making much of a splash. There is no element of this game that makes it jump out of the water and into your face as an instant-classic or genre-defining tycoon game. It is simply a fresh take on the traditional tycoon game that, if you give it a chance to, will offer you hours of relaxing gameplay with high potential for replay value in an aquatic sandbox.