I like goofy, oddball games. I live for them, in fact. If not for the occasional surprise out of left field or insane concept that miraculously trickles down through the approval process, I'm not sure if I'd even still be into games today. The current disc rekindling my love of electronic entertainment: Finny the Fish & the Seven Waters.
The unusual premise of this gem is that the waters, lakes, and streams of the game's world are becoming sickly polluted, and small bass Finny is chosen to gather the help of some local "masters" to save their home. Hemingway this is not. But it gets the job done in setting the stage for what I found to be an earnest, lovable weekend.
Finny accomplishes his "chosen one" tasks (mostly fetching) by using abilities that are basically what you'd expect a fish to be able to do. Although his talents might seem limited at first since fish aren't known for much more than swimming and getting lightly breaded, the developers actually make good use of the concept to craft one able-bodied little hero.
For example, hunting animals and bugs in the water is a large part of the gameplay since the sustenance is needed to keep up Finny's health bar. Finny can also push certain objects by swimming against them, and he can carry some items (though only one at a time) in his mouth. Of course, since this is not a strict simulation there are a few things that normal fish can't do, like snapping ropes with a quick tail-flip, but overall the concept of literally being a fish worked well and was very coherently realized. It was also just neat to have a character who wasn't packing a rocket launcher or sniper rifle, and who didn't hop on enemies' heads to "squoosh" them. Outside of the absurdly difficult Ecco games and Dolphin on the Atari 2600, I'm hard-pressed to think of many titles that explore the idea and challenges of aquatic adventuring from the wet side, and it's a nice change of pace.
I also admired the developers' inclusion of fishy perils, too. Adding a slight element of biological realism, Finny must be on his guard against the danger of getting snapped up by larger predator fish—a natural element of living life with a set of fins. There's not much "combat" in the game, but taking on a giant piranha or alligator gave an occasional adrenaline spurt, and there's nothing better than swallowing something that tries to swallow you first.
Besides the constant possibility of being someone's lunch, Finny will also have to dodge weekend anglers,. I found it all too easy to swallow a treble hook in disguise while stalking minnows or crayfish for a health boost . Once hooked, Finny needs to either snap the line or throw the lure out of his mouth. Escaping fishermen was a nice touch, although I did think that getting hooked happened too often for my taste. It also sort of irked me that Finny could be inside a cave or some other remote location and still be caught, though there was no realistic way for a fisherman to be nearby.
Besides the stripped-down biology lesson, Finny's graphics were a high point for me;every aspect of the screen is saturated in color and carefully designed. Despite being a no-profile title at a reduced price-point, the disc showed no signs of being low-budget at all. Everything looks solid and beautifully clean, with care being taken to produce interesting reflection effects near the water's surface and taking into account visibility and water clarity to varying degrees. Besides the visuals, the other production values were just as high, with the voices and music both being surprisingly excellent.
Although something like Finny the Fish & the Seven Waters swam right up my alley, I can foresee the game running into problems when trying to find the proper audience. It's cartoony and offbeat enough to discourage "core" gamers who have the skills to put the game through its paces, but the difficulty of many sections will likely be too hard for the younger set drawn to its aesthetic. Jumping Finny up waterfalls and snapping fishing lines was surprisingly difficult. Handling the game's camera can also be touchy, and the game lacks clarity when the fetch-quest at hand is done and it's time to move to the next area. There's also one timed segment very early in the game that was tough even for me, so I can imagine lots of kids giving up on the disc.
That said, the game's impression on this jaded, seen-it-all critic was a short, sweet, and I'd even say a charming one. Playing Finny the Fish & the Seven Waters was about as close as I come to relaxed reverie with a controller in my hand these days, and I'm glad that Natsume took a risk (and will likely take a loss) by bringing such a refreshingly quirky niche game to break up the monotony of infinite WWII recreations, look-alike FPSs, and customizable racing games currently boring the hell out of me. Pass me a lemon wedge, I'm going back for seconds.