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More simulator than actual game; only hardcore fish aquarists need apply.

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I’m not an aquarist, my only experiences with the subject amount to two goldfish and three Betta fish who lived (I hope) comfortable lives. When I was introduced to Biotope, my initial expectations were that I’d learn how to properly prepare a fish tank for future inhabitants. Toted as being the first realistic fish tank simulator out there, it felt like a good opportunity to get my hands dirty (or wet?) while adding to my watery skillset. I know they say it’s sink or swim, but if you’re a freshwater fish going into saltwater you can expect to go belly up.

Biotope attempts to recreate the complex processes that go into creating and maintaining a fish tank. While I’ve personally never kept anything more exotic than a ghost shrimp, I do have the benefit of my father and uncle who both kept saltwater tanks. The basic idea is to have a thriving ecosystem in a contained environment where every organism supports another. Granted, I don’t understand many of the finer details of what goes into these things, but I’m always ready to learn. Especially when there’s fish involved. However, if you’re a newbie like myself going into all this you’ll get lost among the reefs trying to navigate how everything works.

From the start, Biotope lets you take the reins to either build a tank from scratch or go through a simple tutorial. Building a tank covers the basics like installing a filter, putting in a background, and add in plants and rocks to make it more homey for the fish. You’re given a few beginner fish to start off with and taught how to maintain their stress levels. Depending on the fish, certain factors can affect their well-being in the tank since everything from the temperature to a balance of the right chemicals needs to be just right. Certain fish like Tetras need a whole school to thrive while others may need to be either alone or have gentle fish mates to share the tank with.

I have a very basic understanding of nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, and PH levels. I know these levels need to be maintained for the fish to live and to get the right balance it has to be a mix of the right chemicals. This is where Biotope shows a few of its flaws since people like me who have a basic understanding of water chemistry will flounder trying to figure out the checks and balances of managing a tank.

To its credit, Biotope does take into account how these balances are affected by what goes into the tank. Ammonia can build up from fish, a creature dying, overfeeding, etc. and a water change is needed to balance it out. Enough plants need to be present in the tank to create sufficient oxygen in the water for fish to breathe or else they’ll all die. This is only a few examples of how much goes into maintaining a miniature ecosystem and keeping it alive. While it was hard for me to tell, other aspects can affect the chemicals in the water that certain decorations, depending on the materials they’re made out of, can drastically raise or lower levels. The only way to correct this is to add more chemicals. Sound confusing? It can be, which is why I couldn’t make heads or tales of half the things going on.

There’s rewards for learning the basics of aquarium keeping too since fish a healthy tank earns you money to buy more decorations and fish from the store Over time, you also gain experience that unlock more goodies to plop into your tank. I did like the concept of commitment to keeping a healthy tank, but due to my sessions never saving I didn’t get to enjoy it. But to be fair, this could just be a problem on my end so take that last complaint with a grain of reef salt.

I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the way the inhabitants of the tank were portrayed and found them about as thrilling as droplets of rain on a windowsill. The fish have no life to them at all beyond floating around in the tank. At times it felt like watching those screensavers I used to stare at that had fish swim by every few minutes just to show a bit of color. Is it bad if I found one more interesting than the other?

On the flip side, I did learn a lot about the basics of keeping an aquarium from my own research. And Biotope does have the benefit of being a nice alternative to keeping a real aquarium setup for people who don’t have the time or space to have one in real life. I could easily spend hours just decorating different tanks just to see how they’ll look and picking out different fish to stock my tank with. There’s even a time-warp option to speed things up to see plants grow and just watch the tank thrive.

After about half an hour, I did find myself bored with nothing to do other than throw on time warp in hopes something else would happen. Fish can be bred to create better lines of aquatic pets, but as stated before, I didn’t have a chance to advance that far. I didn’t see the point of doing this unless the fish were going to be sold off, but again that’s more my opinion than anything else.

The finer details of Biotope need ironed out at this point and people like me who don’t understand the finer points of aquarium keeping need a better introduction to the subject. Once I finished completing a tank I was left with little else to do but to sit and watch my fish do their thing. I know that’s pretty much the entire point of keeping fish, but game-wise I’m not sure that’s compelling enough. There wasn’t much left to the experience after I’d satisfied the basics, and I couldn’t help feeling like Biotope would’ve made a better background “app” than a “game” – more like an interactive screensaver.

About the Author: Nia Bothwell