“Looking down into the water, it’s hard to make out your face.”
You know, it’s crazy how in all of this advancement into making games fun and educational hasn’t led into the two meeting each other for younger audiences. I highly doubt you’re going to find a pre-teen kid who is down for some Civilization or Crusader Kings, so it’s only fair that a more interactive and accessible core is granted for these types of lessons. Thank Christ for games like Beyond Blue, in that regard.
This is the latest fully-fledged title from E-Line Media, a publisher and developer that has been making pretty hefty waves in the name of accessible and pioneering games. Their arty platformer Never Alone was a wonderful little stroll through the stories of the Iñupiat tribe, and their school-ready remix of Minecraft dubbed “MinecraftEdu“. These are all the signs of a group ready to make sure that gaming reaches the audience necessary to expand, and each new addition in their catalog makes it much more admirable.
You play as Mirai, a woman who is eager to high-five whales until they grow human arms. She’s part of a team that includes the timid Andre and the marine biologist Irene, who’re exploring a part of the Western Pacific while streaming it live to the world. On the way, Mirai becomes enamored with a specific family of sperm whales, investigates a phenomenon involving the malnutrition of nearby aquatic life, and deals with her sister, Ren, aiding their aunt, who is suffering from dementia.
This all sounds like a bit of a mouthful, doesn’t it? In actuality, it is, even though it shouldn’t be. Beyond Blue isn’t necessarily a long game, involving several operations and deep dives that are quite linear in their presentation, but the story is fairly dense, although it shouldn’t be for this type of educational gathering. A lot of the time, you’re given dialogue choices that are supposed to determine your actions in how the story progresses, which isn’t implemented properly, but included nonetheless.
It’s an odd inclusion, but it feels like Beyond Blue wants to commit to this dialogue choice cliche purely because Never Alone had a story as well. Although, Never Alone‘s story could easily grasp the notion that what followed was a campfire tale, stories told by generations of this tribe. Beyond Blue doesn’t have that distinction yet still bombards you with irrelevant dialogue, with its only reason to exist being for vague callbacks.
The theme of family plays a part in almost every aspect, and those thematic elements are extremely strong throughout. Whether it’s Mirai choosing to live out in the sea to be closer to her dreams, Irene not having a connection to her daughter, or the whales struggle through these turbulent times– They’re there, in full force. It’s just that the game trips up trying to have its cake and eat it too.
At the very least, you can say that Beyond Blue’s story isn’t completely ham-fisted in nature, but the dialogue choices knee-cap it into something that resembles an ego trip. Why not just have Mirai struggle with her sisters inability to care for her aunt and leave it at that? Whether Mirai asks how Ren’s school troubles are going, or how their aunt is, her adventure in the ocean will leave her with the same conclusions, whether she asks her sister about school or not.
It’s a shame the story’s in rocky waters, because Beyond Blue’s gameplay is fairly smooth sailing. It’s swimming dangerously close to walking simulator territory, albeit with a set of flippers attached. You’re plopped into a random part of the ocean, and you’re tasked with inspecting the marine life around you, with various mysteries and objectives cropping up. You inspect a buoy, you tag the sounds, you go to those sounds, and you do your research with a small but nifty set of tools.
The buoy will be the main way to progress throughout the game, where you’ll highlight noises being made that can be self-explanatory or worrying. In-between those journeys, you’ll find those audio origins, and you’ll also have the chance to scan the local aquatic life surrounding the area, which gives Beyond Blue a hefty exploration aspect. You won’t just be tasked to find one of each species, though. Instead, you’ll be told that there’s an entire group you can scan in various different areas, which dampens the mood somewhat.
While I’m totally fine with charting all different types of fish, jelly-based species or otherwise, the sheer numbers game you’ll have to face isn’t worth the rewards given. Models of the fish and their idle natures are your only payoff for scouring the ocean bed for these creatures. No matter how well-animated they can be, I’m not putting myself through several dives just to find the one solitary Comb Jelly that is stuck in a wall.
As a pure spectacle, Beyond Blue can stun you with the stakes at play. Despite being constantly attached to an earpiece with Andre and Irene, the vibe you feel in this ocean is almost heavenly. While there’s no Call of Duty-certified fish AI, you can almost convince yourself that you’re not intruding on these animals, and instead, you’re a ghost merely seeing what most can’t.
That being said, I highly recommend you turn off the game’s music. Not the small set of licensed tracks you can listen to outside of missions, because those are pretty fire, but the score that plays during dives. Aside from the pianos and synths whooshing across your ears repetitively, it fails to match the mood present, and instead replaces the true feelings one would attain from feeling weightless on the ocean floor.
After you turn off the soundtrack and let yourself become fully immersed in the experience, the ambient sound design takes a turn to try to blow your socks off, and it does. The whale clicks and creaking of the dolphins, the water rushing past your ears, the bubbling of hydrothermal vents when you get lower and lower into the ocean. It feels fantastic.
The swimming controls translate wonderfully to a controller, and the pacing of the character is just right. There’s no shortcut to travelling across these areas, which is a good choice because it allows you to be that much more attuned to the atmosphere. It’s ethereal, it feels like you’re embarking on an impossible mission, and it could be considered quite horrific.
As you get deeper into the mysteries of the story, you’ll find the game approaches a darker turn in what is arguably the games peak. You’re given no waypoint markers, and what follows is a haunting swim through hydrothermal vents and underwater volcanoes. Light fails to penetrate the floor, and your own flashlights can’t even give you a vague description of your surroundings. It’s all fairly spooky, to say the least.
All of this does culminate in a bit of a downer ending with no real bright side to it. A vague callback to a previous line of dialogue marks the end of your actual journey with these people, and it felt like a pointless endeavor. Despite some strong thematic associations, Beyond Blue‘s unnecessary narrative ends up flopping around like that fish at the end of Faith No More’s “Epic” video.
Woah, two FNM references in one review… and they’re both thematically relevant! Ahem, excuse me…
Does Beyond Blue retain the education cores that were present in E-Line Media’s previous projects? Yes, but only slightly. In gameplay, the guise of supposedly streaming your diving efforts live is peppered with dialogue that’s essentially watered-down explanations of their efforts. It works really well and helps open up the more complex definitions that’ll crop up over time.
Other than that, the Insight videos that made their mark in Never Alone return here, which also do their job, but in a Discovery Channel format. There are various topics and subjects shown, like the way Jellyfish age and the meanings behind whale songs, but they missed a crucial angle, that being climate change. At this point in Earth’s life, with more knowledge than ever before, we have a threat we need to combat, but there’s only one video on the danger of climate change and pollution?
You’ll see it in the game world as well, although it’s incredibly muted. Certain pieces of litter damaging the natural eco-structure and a failed deep-sea mining operation are some of the sights you’ll be treated to, but the characters don’t mention it. Why is that? It doesn’t matter whether you’d come off as preachy because this is their job, their passion, and their lifestyle that are being threatened, along with the fishes, so why don’t they bring these issues to light?
Unlike the gameplay’s consistent strength, a lot of these narrative beats and story elements are incredibly hit-’n-miss. When you’re not watching the Insight videos or listening to these characters detour the underwater odyssey, Beyond Blue is an experience worth having. After completing the campaign, you’re given free rein to dive into the regions shown throughout the campaign, without worrying about objectives or otherwise. It’s a nice touch, and it’s great fun, whether you’re crossing species off the arbitrary collectible list or just looking to vibe by yourself.
Despite not having the preachy angle that could’ve helped Beyond Blue‘s message come across to the average player, it’s still a nice time while it lasts. It’s great to see that E-Line Media is still on that hot streak of both teaching players about interesting subjects and putting them in a core that wants to satisfy as much as wants to educate. Beyond a small stipulation of being forced to withstand some unneeded narrative nonsense, Beyond Blue is a delightful little game.
This Review of Beyond Blue was based upon the Xbox One version of the game.
Beyond Blue is a joyous world of underwater exploration, let down by an barrage of emotional set backs. In the end however, the goals are met in satisfying gameplay, with moody roadblocks on the way.
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