Aqua Panic is a puzzle game that has made the rounds on a number of different platforms and eventually made its way to PSN. The overall concept is simple: fish have been taken out of their natural habitat by a tornado. They end up in an anti-gravity ball of fish and water, floating over a sea of angry predators waiting to have a meal and forming obstacles between them and the relative safety of a single patch of water not swarming with creatures higher up the food chain.
Gameplay ends up being similar to a game of Lemmings, but unlike the Lemmings, which can be assigned jobs to help themselves out of the mess they're in, the fish in Aqua Panic are compelled solely by fluid dynamics. In order to make a safe path for the fish you are given a set number of tools in each level which you can use by moving a cursor with the left analog stick. Tools range from bombs to blast through destructible parts of the environment, to plants that can block off one path to send the fish down another, and harpoons to take out predators outside of the water.
As you progress through the 80 levels in the main game mode things gradually get more and more complicated. Environmental tools like clouds can hold fish, whilst bridges extend or retract when water hits a trigger, and valves that you can open or close with the cursor are also introduced. Some of these puzzles require precise timing and fast movement, but the controls for the cursor are a detriment on those occasions. There's no cursor speed slider in the options, so I ended up cursing the plodding pace during those tougher levels. Another source of annoyance is the physics for objects other than the water. Eggs, which you are meant to use to block up holes, sometimes don’t act or have the kind of momentum you would expect, which meant that some levels required multiple retries simply because of their unreliability.
Cursing was commonplace during the latter half of the game when the puzzles become tough as nails, but the developers were kind enough to give you a way out if you can’t possibly figure out a solution. During the main game mode you can opt out of any level by using one of five jokers which will automatically push you onto the next level. Now, since there are 80 levels and only five jokers, you'll want to save them until the last possible moment, but even if you use up all the jokers you can earn them back by completing the level in Free Play, which allows for a little more freedom in how you solve the puzzle.
While the main goal is always to transport a certain fraction of the 100 initial fish to the safe zone, there are also coins strewn around the level that you can obtain by getting water or fish to pass over them. Depending on the number of coins you obtain you get money which can be used in Free Play mode to buy extra tools for replaying all the levels you’ve beaten, as well as those you used a joker on. So, on those levels where you’re so close to a solution and you just need one more plant or bomb to finish up your strategy, you can use a joker and buy the extra tools you need to play through the level in Free Play mode. It also gives Aqua Panic a bit of freedom in how you complete the level, which is great in the later sections of the game where a small amount of tools make only one solution plausible on most levels.
Visually it’s obvious that this game didn’t originate on PSN. The look is similar to a cartoony flash game, but that’s not to say that this is entirely detrimental to the experience. The changes of background every 20 or so levels are nice, and even affect the gameplay to a degree by adding new environmental tools to master. Sadly the same cannot be said for the sound design, which is basically all on the bad side. Sound effects are cute but the “click click click” of an automatic valve can become extremely irritating. The music stuck in my head, but it wasn't enjoyable; it’s similar to how boy band songs used to get stuck in my head during the 90s and I’d try like hell to get them out. The songs in Aqua Panic aren’t as bad as something by 98 Degrees, but they are short, repetitive and can get annoying over time.
For a measly $10 you get 80 levels of fish saving, which took me nine and a half hours to beat, though it will obviously take you more or less depending on your abilities. I won’t lie; there were a number of levels that took me far longer than they probably should have. Once you’re done with that you unlock Survival mode, which gives you 100 fish and only requires that you save one each level, but every fish that dies is gone for good and the challenge is to see how many levels you can get through before running out of fish.
Aqua Panic is a pretty good puzzle game, but too often the frustrating difficulty, controls that aren't suited to the gameplay in each and every level, and wonky physics for solid objects hold it back from greatness. On the other hand, if the gameplay really strikes a chord with you then you’ll get 10 or so hours of fun out of it for just $10, which isn’t bad at all.