The vast majority of games that are released into the current gaming landscape focus on fast action, hardcore gameplay, and the need to prove yourself over others. But Beyond Blue is different, and following on from the work they delivered with the interesting Never Alone back in 2014, we find E-Line Media once more working the magic to deliver a narrative-based adventure. This time it is one which takes us deep beneath the waves – right down to the beating blue heart of our precious planet.
Having worked with a variety of oceanographers, marine scientists, and charity founders, before being inspired by OceanX Media and those behind the BBC’s Blue Planet II, E-Line Media are continuing their quest to deliver gaming experiences that educate the mind. Beyond Blue does that, to a certain extent, but I’d have liked to have seen them go further and beyond in the process, especially as it has only been in the last couple of years where we’ve seen the world as a whole begin to sit up and take notice of the power of the sea.
Beyond Blue puts you in the diving suit of Mirai, a deep sea explorer and scientist who has a love for everything found under the waves – especially a specific family of whales. As part of a new research team, it is up to you to help guide Mirai through a number of areas in the ocean, documenting the animals she finds, and interacting with them like never before.
The vast majority of your time with Beyond Blue will see you controlling Mirai as she gracefully swims through the ocean, moving from checkpoint to checkpoint, urged on by colleagues Andre and Irina. With a hugely important scanner to hand, it is this which becomes the focal point for all your interaction beneath the waves, homing in on new species of fish and underwater life with a press of LB. From there, keeping a specific animal or shoal in your sights for a few seconds allows for them to be catalogued, furthering the story and providing a number of informative options. In a nutshell, that is Beyond Blue – swim, explore, catalogue. And if you’re on the lookout for a game that will be able to provide you with some kind of learning, it does the job.
The ocean itself is split into a variety of smaller regions – the Atoll, the Open Ocean, Seamount, Brine Pool, Vents, and a Coastal Region – each of which is home to a number of different species. Making your way through these areas, working into crevices and past lava pools in the hope you can find the information you are looking for, is a cinch. It’s helped by the fact that Mirai handles well too, swimming at pace and gliding as if she is at one with the ocean. And it’s this which can happily provide a highly relaxing gaming experience, one that is perfect for kicking back with in the hope you can further your mind.
The animals themselves look and sound great too. It’s probably a lifelong dream of many to be able to swim with dolphins, and Beyond Blue gives you that chance. But also you’ll be able to get caught up with shoals of smaller fish, or marvel at the glory of a Leatherback Turtle or Whale Shark as they go about their business. Swimming alongside these underwater beasts rarely gets old, and when combined with the sounds, clicks, buzzes and audio cues they deliver, Beyond Blue really allows for immersion. I just wish there were more included though, as just as it seems like Beyond Blue is prepared to give up the magic of the ocean, it all comes to a halt.
What Beyond Blue does very well though is provide great insight into the animals found in our delicate oceans. From the likes of the huge Sperm Whale, through a multitude of sharks, dolphins, and orcas, across to turtles and octopuses, and then right down to shoals of smaller fish like the White Spotted Pufferfish and Quoy’s Parrotfish, there are a good variety of species included – nearly 50 in all when you include juveniles. Each of these are detailed in a great way too, and the more you progress through Beyond Blue, and the more you scan each individual creature, the greater information that will be provided. At the end of your journey of discovery you’ll not only know the scientific names for each creature, but its length, the type of water it likes to hang out in, and you’ll even have had the chance to take in and listen to their own unique sounds.
Those creatures which play the most major roles in Beyond Blue are the most well-detailed, but it’s a shame that we can’t learn more and discover further information about the smaller animals in place. For instance, the whales are front and centre of this piece, and they have plenty of insight thrown in, but the Giant Clam, the tiny Lantern Fish or even one of the most intriguing of all fish, the Ocean Sunfish, are not anywhere near as detailed.
Beyond Blue also goes deep by combining some superb further insight via the inclusion of 16 unique mini-documentaries – Ocean Insights. These unlock as you and Mirai discover specific parts of the story, but are a great addition to the gameplay side of things, building on what we are able to learn through playing the game. Each are just a few minutes in length, and so if you have any inkling of wanting to know more about the oceans, how technology is helping play a part in our understanding, or even how the life of an ocean explorer plays out, they are a must-watch and a hugely interesting addition to the game as a whole.
Not everything works as intended in Beyond Blue though. Whilst the swimming, the exploration and the scanning of the animals rarely gets tiresome, there are a few little bugs and glitches – one in particular seeing a whole group of sharks refusing to move through the water. Yes, they could have been asleep, but when approaching them it was entirely possible to swim right through them, merging Mirai and the shiver as one.
And then when we find Mirai heading back to her little sub in order to partake in conversations with Andre, Irina and her sister, Ren, things become a little stilted, both in terms of interactions with a few of the minor items found in the sub, as well as in the conversations with her friends and family. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with the voice acting and how the lines are delivered, but when out of water everything about Beyond Blue becomes a tad basic, failing to ever deliver the immersion in the backstory that is required of a great gaming experience.
It’s not helped that it is here where Mirai fails to come across as human either, visually characterised as some kind of expressionless half-robot, half-mannequin who doesn’t belong from this earth. This is strange too, as I quite like the visual stylings that Beyond Blue delivers when we go out into the deep blue. But in the sub, it’s just a bit too basic. In fact, the whole sub experience seems tacked on to provide some semblance of narrative.
For all the intrigue that the setting delivers, it has to also be said that Beyond Blue seems a bit tight on actual gameplay. Swimming around the ocean, discovering new animals and pushing the half-hearted story on is the main focus, but after a little while it gets a bit repetitive, leaving you to just go looking for creatures you haven’t yet scanned in order to complete a few tick boxes. It really is a case of ‘go here, scan an animal, chat to your colleagues, and get the hell back to your sub’ throughout much of Beyond Blue, and I’d personally have loved more opportunity to explore the wonderful world it contains. But if truth be told, for as vast as the ocean is, the playground Mirai finds herself in is relatively small, and relatively unpopulated with species.
At the end of the day though, it’s hard to criticise Beyond Blue too much, for it comes to market with the express intention of highlighting the ocean’s magic, hammering home a different type of message to most other gaming experiences. As a game it could do better, but as a journey into what is the unknown for many, then it most certainly works. A few little bugs and glitches aside, if you’re interested in the deep blue, and wish to know more about the work that goes on under our ocean waves, then Beyond Blue on Xbox One is certainly one to pick up.