This review was the hardest thing I have ever done.
Is this a game that anyone (even blasphemous non-dolphin lovers) can pick up and enjoy? Does a simple scuba-diving simulator even stand a chance of being embraced by an audience?
Hit the jump for my full review.
Endless Ocean (Nintendo Wii)
Developed by Arika
Published by Nintendo of America
Released on January 21, 2008
I am predicting that Endless Ocean will get a heavy amount of (fair?) criticism due to the fact that it really is more of an experience than an actual game. I fear that some outlets will either discount it completely or criticize it harshly due to its lackadaisical nature.
And when I say “experience” I mean just that: You can’t die in Endless Ocean (in fact, you can’t really fail at anything), there is no set time limit, and as far as I know there really isn’t an end to the game at all. In this regard, it is very much like Animal Crossing, although a lot more basic and, well, set almost entirely under the sea.
The experience (yes, that is what I am calling it) of Endless Ocean begins as your generic scuba diver with, literally, zero backstory checks into customs on a trip to Manoa Lai, a fictional chain of islands set in a beautiful tropical paradise. After choosing your name, sex, laughably limited hairstyle, and darkness of tan (what?), you're sent off to explore the sea.
While navigating the helpful opening tutorial, the first thing I noticed about Endless Ocean was how easy it was to control. While underwater, all you need to do is point to where you want to go using a small on-screen cursor and hold down the B-trigger under the Wiimote to swim. It really is as easy as that. This subtle use of the Wii controls is a welcome change from the waggle fests a lot of us are quickly growing tired of.
The bulk of the Endless Ocean experience is spent exploring the sea and examining as many different creatures as possible. Luckily, this is all done in a surprisingly pretty -- if not spectacular -- graphical style, accompanied by an even more beautiful Enya-inspired soundtrack which can be customized using the MP3s on your Wii’s SD card. As mentioned earlier, there is no time limit, so you can literally spend hours just checking every single nook and cranny for something new to see. Granted, you do have a “limited” supply of air, but it seems to last forever and never once ran out on me.
When encountering any underwater creature, after clicking on it with the A button, you can choose to observe, feed, or pet it by holding down A and waving the Wiimote back and forth. By feeding or petting, the familiarity level of that creature goes up, to a maximum level of 3. At each new level, you learn more about the creature, be it basic biological facts or interesting trivia -- I now know more about the Sailfin Tang than I ever thought possible.
I have to be honest: as simple as it is, I experienced some pretty breathtaking moments while playing Endless Ocean. The Manoa Lai sea is not really endless, as the name will have you believe, but there is a whole lot of it to explore; its size is comparable to the sea in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. I can’t really put into words how refreshing and just plain cool it is to simply swim around, discovering hidden caves and grottos filled with all forms of marine life. At one point in the experience I found a small opening which led to an elaborate labyrinth of stalactites and caves. After making my way through the dark, submerged corridors, I emerged in a stark white opening filled with a herd of manatees. I literally gasped when I saw the gentle creatures, surprised that all of this was hidden behind a tiny opening I may have passed by and never found. Endless Ocean is full of numerous moments like this.
Unfortunately, outside these wonderful little discoveries, Endless Ocean does not offer that much to do.
Between swimming excursions, your character will spend a small amount of time aboard the Gabbiano, a small sailboat. The ship serves as an interactive menu of sorts, allowing you to view everything from a Marine Encyclopedia cataloguing the hundreds of different types of marine life you can discover, to a chest of sunken treasures in which you'll store the hard-to-find objects you find scattered along the sea floor during your dives. You can also use this ship to visit far away areas and change into different diving suits you collect by completing specific missions.
Speaking of missions, the game does offer a small variety of tasks that you can accomplish outside the aimless swimming. Using your personal computer on the ship, you can access emails from many different people, some of who are wealthy clients wanting to hire you as a scuba guide, others requesting photographs of specific fish to display in their magazine. Completing these sometimes interesting, mostly tedious missions will reward you with a new scuba suit or upgraded equipment. While I appreciate the effort to include these diversions, almost all of them are extremely dull and don’t offer any real incentive for participation.
One sidequest I did appreciate, however, was dolphin training. Yes, you read that right. Every time you encounter a dolphin in the game, you can befriend it and have it become your diving partner. At any point in the game, you can train one of these numerous dolphin partners to perform simple tricks off the stern of your ship by performing basic movements with the Wiimote. I think I shed a tear the first time I got my dolphin pal Lucy (yup, you can name them as well) to speak on command. While all this admittedly gets old quick, it is a nice change of pace when compared to the other mundane optional activities.
The online aspects of Endless Ocean are certainly worth a mention. By connecting with a friend in your Wii address book you can swim around the vast sea together. This co-op mode is most significant for the implementation of a cool underwater pen that can be used to leave messages or drawings anywhere. When activated, the pen mode pulls up a Mario Paint-esque toolbar that lets you draw anything on-screen with your Wiimote. Not only do these images stay permanently saved in the spot you created them, I kept envisioning how much fun it would be to play some kind of underwater version of hide-and-seek: One person could hide a message somewhere completely random (at the bottom of a small canyon, behind a wall of coral) while another person could follow drawn clues to discover its whereabouts. Maybe it’s just me, but I think something like that could be a lot of fun. This little added touch goes a long way in adding more replay value to the entire experience.
Overall, Endless Ocean is an interesting experiment that could lay the groundwork for something deeper and more fleshed out in the future (I kept imagining how cool a multi-layered RPG would be set in a similarly vast ocean). As is, though, I really can’t see the average gamer (translation: everyone that isn’t me) being entertained for more than an hour of two. Not to use a bad water pun, but the experience ultimately feels shallow. I do recommend trying it out at least once: Swimming over an underwater bluff to witness a giant, beautifully-rendered group of manta rays really is a sight to behold and a rare, peaceful moment in videogames few will ever get to experience.
As much as I hate to do this to my virtual dolphin brethren (I’m sorry Lucy!), I have to keep the general public in mind and give Endless Ocean a …
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