Today's game is brought to us by the fine people at Arika, the minds behind such fine games as Technic Beat, Everblue and the Street Fighter EX series. Endless Ocean 2 is the 2010 followup to 2008's Endless Ocean. The sequel expands the one large area of the first game into a series of diving locations set in wildly varying parts of the globe. It also adds a main story quest, a wealth of side quests, collectables, a leveling system, purchasable and unlockable equipment and even Wii Speak functionality for the online, if that's your thing. As you can see, they were obviously quite busy in the two year interim.
To sum up the gameplay, Endless Ocean 2 is a simplified scuba diving simulator. You basically just swim around, checking out fish and looking for treasure. The controls with the Wiimote work by swimming forward with the B button, double tapping B to turn around and directing your diver with the pointer on the wiimote. I, personally went for the classic controller, which works by swimming forward with the L button, turning around with the Y button, directing your diver with the right stick, and working the pointer with the left stick.
As I said before, instead of one large area with no real goals, where you have to find your own fun, Endless Ocean 2 expanded to a series of large areas with all manner of side quests to do within them. The side quests are probably one of the main draws of this game. It's got about as much extraneous stuff to do as you could ask for. Virtually every item you interact with has some off-the-wall side quest chain attached to it.
You get monetary bonuses for map completion at the different locales. There are photography quests, if you're wanting to get your Pokemon Snap on. You've got a steady stream of gear to be spending your money on. You can go treasure hunting either looking for regular hauls at random or looking for bigger hauls, which have their own side quests attached to them. So treasure hunting is one of the main sources of income in the game, as is doing guided tours.
You also unlock an aquarium that you can fill with the various creatures you've encountered in the game so far. They even put a really interesting quest line around collecting one hundred coins they've scattered across the different levels. And that's, of course, not counting all the other extraneous and one-off side quests that I'm forgetting. So there's no lack of things to do outside of the main quest line. The way they dole out currency and titles, which are this game's version of achievements, makes for a really good feedback loop, which I think is pretty crucial for a game with such basic gameplay as this one.
Also, aside from shooting fish with a pulsar gun, the MacGuffin they are searching for in the main quest and the way they handle shark attacks in the game, they seem to have been pretty grounded in reality with their simulation. From what I've gathered, which albeit isn't much, they seem to have done a pretty good job of reproducing the biomes on display in the different levels and the facts they mention about the different animals all seem to not be pulled out of their asses, and are all reasonably educational, which is a good thing I think.
The main quest line is another of the game's better qualities. The story itself isn't anything amazing; it gets you from point A to B well enough. What really makes the story mode really stand out is that the game saves all of its best set pieces for it, doling out its best pieces of scenery complete with fancy Celtic ladies singing over it. It sounds goofy and maybe a little cliched, but it really creates a powerful atmosphere for exploring these underwater locals, and that atmosphere is probably Endless Ocean 2's greatest strength.
The game has a super deliberate pacing to it. It's almost a little too slow moving around at first, before you've upgraded your equipment, but that slow pacing, along with the sound design, really communicates the intent of the game, which is simply wandering around and taking in the sights. The fauna varies really well as you explore the different areas. Each kind of animal has its specific areas it spends its time in, which makes the exploration feel more rewarding. The sound of your regulator going off as you breathe and the light, atmospheric music gives the game an even greater sense of immersion as you're playing.
The mix of the chill music, underwater setting and the laid back pacing make for such a unique vibe. I mean, I've played a lot of games and all, but I don't think I've ever played a game that felt so upliftingly chill, other than Journey maybe, but that was only in fits and starts. I think you probably need at least a little bit of interest in the setting to really enjoy it, but it's just such an incredibly relaxing game. And that, incidentally, leads me to some of my complaints about the game.
Like I said, the laid-back pacing is one of the games greater strengths, but the game fumbles on the pacing more than a little bit. I hate to nit pick on any game by a developer as small-time as Arika; it's not as though they've got gigantic budgets to do whatever they want with. But this game's problems really sort of tie into some broader issues with Japanese game design philosophy. The main two issues here are that the game has no voice acting in it, and it frequently interrupts gameplay so that characters can talk via text boxes while you thumb through them with the A button. And that really kills the pacing and the immersion, more importantly, when it comes up, which it does frequently.
I don't want to make this sound like a deal breaker, but it really is a shame that they didn't take the extra time to put voice-over into the game. And that's not just from the standpoint of personal preference. all of the text boxes that pop up when you're just trying to swim around and have a good time really hurt the game overall, moreso than with other games even, and they could have replaced all of that with a simple voice-over. Even if it only came up when you were underwater, that would have been enough.
The graphics are pretty good, as far as Wii games go. It doesn't appear to have too much aliasing going on with it, although, not unlike with the previous Endless Ocean game, the above water parts of the game look significantly inferior to the underwater parts. The faces on the character models are pretty ugly as well, but once your underwater, the game looks fine. The draw distance is good and I don't think I ever noticed any pop in or anything bad like that while swimming.
The environment and art design are both solid as well. The fish are well modeled and come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The reefs and sand all look sharp and clean, as do the water effects, the bubbles coming off of your character especially. The game really is quite pretty. Obviously a game like this really needs to have solid fundamentals, and outside of the game being on the Wii, the game looks and runs quite well.
Ultimately, Endless Ocean 2 is a game with a lot of heart behind it. There's a loving attention to detail put into the underwater environments, which makes for a fantastically immersive game with one of the chillest vibes around. Even if the idea of being a scuba diver and the new-age music doesn't hook you, the game still has a wonderful sense of progression that should be great for RPG fans looking for a slightly more laid-back change of pace. And even though I'm pretty sure Skullomania never shows up anywhere in the game, it's still easily one of my favorite games on the Wii, right up there with Gabrielle's Ghostly Groove. There's something so incredibly ephemeral about the experience, probably because there's never been anything quite like it before, and likely never will be either, unless our friends at Arika see fit to make another sequel.