In Other Waters is perhaps one of the most unique games I've come across in my twenty-something years of gaming. The debut title from developer Jump Over the Age has players taking control of an AI built into a deep-sea exoskeleton suit and guide an explorer, Dr. Ellery Vas, across a mysterious new planet. Gameplay is top-down and consists of a mostly singular screen with little to no visuals. I must confess, I've had a hard time explaining this game to friends in a single sentence. The best I can do is to call it a top-down point-and-click Metroidvania text-based adventure. And that, even without getting to the story content, is interesting.
An exobiologist (someone responsible for studying alien life) working for Baikal Exoplanet Extraction has come to this planet of her own accord, seeking her old friend and colleague Minae. Upon arriving at the research station on this unnamed planet of infinite ocean, Dr. Vas discovers that the exoskeleton suit worn for exploration is alive. That's where you come in! Together, they set out to discover what happened to Minae on this cold, silent planet. Dr. Vas, despite being the protagonist of the story, serves as a companion. You, the player, serve a supporting role and speak very seldomly throughout.
The Single HUD Screen is Unique but Grows Stale
A picture is truly worth a thousand words in the case of In Other Waters. I'll be referencing it to describe the gameplay going forward. The yellow dot on the map represents the player. There is no free movement; it's better described as point-and-click, or rather, scan-and-click. When moving, the screen shifts around the player, keeping the yellow dot in the center. A topographical map is shown outside of the player's immediate radius, and as the player moves around and scans the environment they uncover new points to move to and alien life to scan. Movement is only between predefined points, so you can only travel along pre-designated paths. There are no further visuals than what you see in the picture above.
In Other Waters was made to be played on a touch screen and runs much more smoothly that way, so if you're playing the Switch version I'd recommend playing it in handheld mode. Every time the player scans a new triangle (a movement point) a small text description pops up on the right of what the area looks like. The blue circles pictured above are the movement points. It is genuinely impressive that the team must have written over a thousand of these descriptions, but I don't feel that they did the environments justice. Of course, my imagination filled in the blanks as it does when reading a book, but having a game described to me as I watched a minimalist version of it onscreen just didn't click.
The Well-Structured Narrative Doesn't Push Any Boundaries
You have two meters measuring power and oxygen. Some areas have a strange side-effect of slowly decreasing your O2 over time, and others do the same with your power. If either runs out, you "die" and a drone retrieves you back to the main base. The main gameplay element of In Other Waters is collecting samples. After all, this is a game about being a scientist. You'll collect samples through what could be loosely described as a mini-game, again on the same HUD screen, and can carry up to nine at once. You'll want to take one of each kind of plant that you find back to the base for analysis to fill in your taxonomy log, but you can convert whatever extras you pick up along the way into power or O2. You eventually gain the ability to see how each organism affects both of those meters so you can know where best to spend your samples. When you get to the end of an area (there are 8), you call the retrieval drone to take you back to base and dump the samples you've collected, as well as discuss the story's progression with Dr. Vas. Then you get a new objective and set out into the next area.
The narrative unravels very slowly and doesn't feel quite like it pays off. Dr. Vas speaks to the player and aloud to herself through the text box at the bottom of the screen. I counted about a dozen times during the story that I got to respond with a "Yes" or "No", although it wasn't clear if that changed Vas's responses at all. The ending becomes predictable just halfway through, and watching the supposedly brilliant Dr. Vas struggle with accepting the truth is a bit of out of character. Still, it's interesting and doesn't ever lose sight of the theme it is built around: colonization. In Other Waters, however predictable, has something worthwhile to say. Dr. Vas will discover the terrible truth about human love, greed, and curiosity. Other Waters invokes some serious Star Trek vibes, albeit through a minimalist interface, as Dr. Vas tries repeatedly to observe without interfering in the ecosystem.
Discover Your Inner Scientist
Upon finding new kinds of organisms and unlocking two extra powers (the torch and the jet), the player and Dr. Vas can return to previous areas and access new places, conceivably in the name of filling out your taxonomy log. If you're enjoying In Other Waters that much by the end, there's definitely some post-game collectathon material. Strange animals and plants abound in this world, and as someone with a Masters of Science degree, I'll attest that the language and processes of sampling, testing and logging discoveries is sound. If you've ever worked in a lab at university you'll be familiar with a lot of the terminology you come across. I must reiterate that there are no visuals supplied for the flora and fauna of In Other Waters, other than an occasional rough sketch Dr. Vas draws in the log back at base. You'll need to mentally envision a lot of what you're seeing as you explore. However, if you truly let your imagination run wild, there are fantastical discoveries just below the surface.
In Other Waters Review | Final Thoughts
The text-based nature of In Other Waters holds it back from matching the exploration heights of other oceanic games like Subnautica and Abzu, but the sheer dedication to the concept is impressive all on its own. Well-detailed art showing certain locations and organisms would have done wonders for this title, but as it is I can't say I felt the thrill of exploring an alien ocean to its fullest. Hearing about a ten-foot-tall curving stalk shooting bubbles at passing fish just isn't quite the same as seeing it. The gamepad control scheme was difficult and unintuitive, and I chose to play in handheld most of the time just to avoid it. The map only being available at the base was a serious misstep, causing me to get lost constantly and consult a map I pulled up on my phone to actually progress. Despite all this, I became invested in exploring a world I could not see. I can say for certain that I did not have a lot of fun playing In Other Waters, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a completely unique and absolutely interesting experience.
TechRaptor reviewed In Other Waters on Nintendo Switch using a code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC via Steam.
- Unique, Interesting Gameplay
- Well-Written, Albeit Predictable Story
- Relaxing Minimalist Style
- Overly Complicated Gamepad Controls
- Map Only Available Between Missions
- Not Particularly Fun to Play