Have you ever come home after a few months away and noticed that your favorite burrito shop has folded? Okay, now multiply that feeling by roughly eighty trillion. That’s how the unseen, nameless protagonist must feel in The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, developer YCJY’s flagship release. This poor soul gets trapped in a wormhole that spits him out towards an icy, flooded Earth devoid of humanity. It does have fish, though. Lots of fish.
So yeah, after crashing through a thick sheet of ice, you’re underwater from here on. Thus begins a journey of visual storytelling. You’ll pilot your cool submarine through vast caverns and kelp forests, sewers and ghost towns, finding data entries and visual clues that piece together what went so very wrong for your hairless-ape brethren. As you can imagine, it's pretty damn tragic. The map is laid out in Metroidvania fashion, and as you soak in the passive storytelling, be sure to seek out upgrades that lie at the ends of various caves. You’ll need them.
Soon after picking up the harpoon gun, you face The Worm. After inevitably dying a few times, you take it down and move on. It’s here that the game’s flawed structure is laid bare. In-between the several boss fights are thirty-minute exploring session wherein no combat is involved aside from dodging gigantic clams and occasionally moving objects that shoot out in patterns. It’s calming, if occasionally tedious, but the problem is that the exploration really doesn’t gel with the boss fights. From start to finish, there wasn’t a single throwdown I felt even remotely prepared for. These brilliantly creepy monstrosities are absolutely relentless, requiring enormous amounts of trial and error. What’s frustrating is that these bosses could’ve been just as challenging but far less irritating if Aquatic Adventure made any effort to harden you up by throwing consistent, active enemies at you during your downtime. Fortunately, as you journey from one crash-course battle to the next, the game becomes easier. Not because you gain new skills as a player, but rather because you’re accumulating a constant stream of attack, speed, and defense upgrades. Regardless, most battles will take you multiple tries and cumulative hours.
But is the downtime at least any good? Well, yes! It’s not much more than half of the game, but when you’re just making your way through the ocean, there’s plenty to take in. The melancholic tunes set the tone perfectly, instilling you with a sense of loss and purpose as you reflect on what could’ve happened. While the cavern walls tend to be a bit blocky, as if made for a platform game, the environments themselves are nicely detailed. Reef fish the size of whales and whales the size of whole cities drift by in the background. Kelp grows to stratospheric proportions. Toxic ooze causes mutations and bacterial abominations. Again, this isn’t just window dressing, as practically everything you see relates to the story (I won’t spoil why the fish are so big).
Settlements towards the surface look futuristic even in ruination, while those deeper down have a more present-day look to them. It quickly becomes clear that this is a result of the world slowly flooding, which means that as you deduce what happened, you’ll have to factor in a story being told in reverse. It can be fun to just sit there and speculate at times. What does that field of artillery tell you? How long did this eco-terrorist group hold out in the flooded ruins? What were the consequences of wantonly dumping untreated sewage and garbage into natural caves? These are some of the many questions to which answers are at least suggested; Aquatic Adventure doesn’t just leave you hanging.
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is both enchanting and incongruent, engrossing and annoying. The best moments are the quiet ones, when you’re just drifting among massive kelp forests and futuristic ruins. The sense of loneliness is masterfully implemented - you really feel like the last of your kind. There are plenty of messages in the subtext, some subtle and others obvious, but there’s a general trend of bad choices compounding on each other until humanity loses trust in itself. If the boss fights were replaced with more of this interesting lore, we’d probably have something great. Regardless, if you can handle a lot of trial and error in the name of a good story, go ahead and take the - wait for it - plunge.