Dual-stick shooters are a dime a dozen on Xbox Live Arcade, so you've got to do something a little different to get noticed. And developer Games Distillery's Aqua sure tries, with a cool steampunk setting on the high seas and some unique cartoon artwork. But design miscues like an underdeveloped storyline, slowly paced combat, and annoying mission goals make for a mediocre maritime experience.
All of the glub-glub shooting takes place on a water world where the good-guy Brit/Yank Empereans are fighting the bad-guy Slavic Gotheans on the waves. It's an interesting notion, given how this Captain Nemo-ish fantasy land blends Victorian ship and building design with steampunk tech like blasters, missiles, flamethrowers, and oddball flying machines. There isn't any development of the background or story, though. All of the levels look unique, with a gilded-age sheen given to even the grungiest of flame-spouting warships, but there are no cutscenes to reveal any of the backstory and no in-game moments that put the whole thing together. While a lot of atmosphere soaks through, thanks to gorgeous water graphics, ship designs that rut the gamut from baroque speedboats to avant-garde destroyers, and some great if limited voice acting in talking-head clips during battles, you're still set adrift in a pretty world with little substance behind the style.
In the end, all you're told is that there's a war on and you're playing as Captain Benjamin Grey, an Emperean Navy officer. You take on the enemy fleet with just the help of a single vessel and a smart-mouthed chief engineer named Polly Edison. Combat is standard dual-stick fare. You move with the left stick, shoot with the right, and hit buttons to activate special moves like firing torpedoes, calling up bonus attacks, and using speed boosts. There are just three ships in the game--the Speedboat, Cruiser, and Gunboat--but they can each be decked out with various weapons like shotguns, mines, powerhouse shots, and unique attacks, such as summoning a fighter to blast enemies with electrical blasts. These goodies can be rigged up in war shop docking bays found throughout the campaign levels, while a sister station called the squad shop lets you summon a squadron of boats you can command. That said, the three core ships feel pretty much identical in combat. All move at roughly the same speed and share mostly the same weapon loadouts, so there isn't much to set one ship apart from another. Commanding the squad can be reasonably satisfying and give you the feeling of actually taking part in a war, but you don't get the opportunity often enough for this to make a real impact on gameplay.
Aqua battles blend into one another so perfectly that it's like you're in one long fight from the beginning of the game to the end. The slow pace is the biggest problem because the ships are lethargic in comparison to most dual-stick shooters. This gives the game a good nautical vibe, as you can never forgot that you're on the water. But the lack of speed turns battles into slow slugfests where you endlessly circle fleets of enemies and wear them down with guns and torpedoes. Mission objectives can be annoying, too. Much of the time, you're stuck with escorting friendly vessels or defending bases from hordes of enemy ships, which is never fun. Difficulty is extreme even on the easiest setting, with you frequently losing the battle in the last moments and being forced to start the whole thing all over again. Some of these assignments are also poorly designed. In one level, you're given the goal of keeping a factory intact for five minutes while an enemy fleet sails in to bombard it. But nothing important happens until the last 30 seconds or so, when the enemies obliterate gun turrets around the facility. So you can sit back far away from the action for a good four minutes before even bothering to get involved.
Combat is a little more exciting in the skirmish and multiplayer modes. Skirmish puts you up against insane numbers of enemies in fights to the finish, while the multiplayer spices things up with co-op and competitive options that let you battle through arenas and race past checkpoints. There isn't anything remarkable here, but the multiplayer does boost the replay value a little bit. Unfortunately, there's no on online multiplayer, so those modes can only be played locally.
One of the best things that can be said of Aqua is that it is reasonably priced at 800 points, unlike a good number of other Xbox Live Arcade games coming out these days. Beyond that, however, this shooter is uninspired and forgettable; it's an afternoon's diversion that you'll likely walk away from for good after just one or two short sessions of play.