Gaming can be relaxing, but it doesn’t flex that muscle very often. More often than not, games go the opposite way. Occasionally, however, the immersive power of video games takes you somewhere where you can unwind. We’re all for that change of palate, and it’s great that games like Mythic Ocean exist.
You could call Mythic Ocean a walking simulator, but it deserves a subtle rewording: Mythic Ocean is more of a ‘floating simulator’. You swim, you collect, and you talk. That’s it. The swimming is simple enough, as you point your head in the direction you want to go, then hold RT to boost in that direction. It’s enough to navigate some pretty simple and attractive spaces. The most intricate is a network of tunnels called the Moss Caverns, but that’s stretching the definition of ‘intricate’ and ‘network’. You won’t get lost, you won’t struggle with the controls, and you will mostly be drifting in the direction you want to go in.
The collecting works well. You start in a biome – a kelp forest, a coral reef – and you’re given a number of fish and portals to find. To find the fish, you’re best off in sonar mode, a laid-back version of Batman’s Detective Mode, which allows you to ‘ping’ to see all of the fish in the area. If you’ve met those fish before, you’ll see a fishy outline, and if you’ve not found them before then they will sparkle. There’s no more than a dozen fish in each area, and very few are hidden. It’s about as taxing as playing hide and seek with my two-year-old.
The hidden portals can’t be seen with sonar, so you’re switching between the two lenses to find them. It’s a nice step up from just playing ‘spot-the-collectible’, and gives you subtly more to do than just float around, as you ping and look, ping and look. Once you’ve found a fish, you get to hear their problems, and they might have some back-and-forth with nearby characters, like a puffer fish who’s angling to be a rock star, and a swordfish that’s getting some unwanted dolphin attention. The portal collectibles, meanwhile, take you to a Library of Antiquity room, where you must find a glowing book before you can return to the wider world.
The only remaining action in Mythic Ocean is chatting, and – towards the end of Mythic Ocean – it will be the lionfish’s share of what you do. In each biome is a god, from the multi-armed otter Amar, to the moray eel Elil. Their designs are mostly great – only a googly eyed Alethea seems out of place – and talking to them leads to long dialogue trees. Completing these dialogue trees unlocks a ‘Fable’ item, which is a fancy way of indicating that you’ve reached the end of a conversation, and your next step is to approach one of the different gods.
What the gods talk about is probably the finest component of Mythic Ocean. It wants to focus on friendship, and not the Disney-fied version of it. Instead, it’s about how friendship is often between people who are different from each other, who rub each other the wrong way. Friendship is something that needs to be worked on, and it doesn’t snap into place from the first moment.
It sounds pithy but it’s handled really well. Amar frequently plays with some twins called Estri and Kestri, but he cheats. He sees this as a life lesson for them, but they’ve been cheated in the past, so it prods at an old wound. A larval creature called Lutra is visited by the scientist Alethea, and takes offence at being scanned without its consent, as it leaves it paralysed in the process. Resolving these fractions means teaching the characters empathy, and you sense that they are growing as individuals as you do so. They will glow green when they’ve learned something, or buzz with electricity when they’re ill at ease. There are divergences based on the choices you make, which manifest as lovely watercolour paintings that you collect, but largely you can make whatever choice you want without ‘bad’ or ‘good’ endings.
The overall story is a strange one that doesn’t quite coalesce. You are one of a pantheon of gods, stuck in a cycle of creation, and you have differing memories of how long you’ve been in this rut. You are probably the most prominent of these gods, as you are the one who gets to choose who becomes the ‘creator’, the one with the most power. That takes form as a crown, created from the books that you found in the portals (the connection’s never too clear), and you’ll be picking your favourite god to stick a crown on.
One of Mythic Ocean’s biggest failings is that the godly stuff is told mostly through books, and it doesn’t land as well as the friendship storylines. The ending is the greatest casualty of all of this. There’s a huge tonal leap at the end of Mythic Ocean, and it clobbers you in the chops rather than feels like a natural climax. It would have worked as the ending for a phase of Marvel movies, but for a relaxed floating-simulator? Eh, not so much.
We felt no pull to play Mythic Ocean again, even though there are watercolours to collect and different choices to make. Part of that is because progress is gated behind collectibles – you have to gain a certain number of fish, Fables and books to get to the ending – and it’s just makework a second time round. The other part is there’s no incentive to play again. Mythic Ocean is missing achievements for second runs, wildly divergent chat trees, extra collectibles to find, or even a re-shuffle of elements so that it feels different.
We also had a complicated relationship with the fast travel button. Once you’ve found all the gods, it becomes too tempting and too easy to simply teleport to them, which bypasses all of the collectibles, the sedate swimming, and cuts Mythic Ocean down to a couple of hours play. The last third of the game becomes a pattern of conversation-fast-travel-conversation, and that’s a jolt to both the pacing and the enjoyment. We’d have loved more reasons to swim around, beyond the finite collectibles, so that we didn’t lean on the fast travel crutch as much as we did.
But sometimes a game is there to be played and discarded. Mythic Ocean certainly makes that one playthrough worthwhile. The leisurely swimming is relaxed and intuitive, and finding an area for the first time is a serene joy. The collectibles are fine, simple and obvious as they are, but they do their job of offering an aim. And the characters are well-rounded. Forging friendships between them is satisfying, and playing a counsellor to the gods is more fun than it sounds.
There is nothing daring or complicated about Mythic Ocean. It’s not substantial, being one-and-done in a couple of hours, without a convincing reason to play again. But it has something to say about the difficulties of friendship, and it achieves a meditative state that allows you to unwind as you navigate beautiful environments. It’s a holiday that won’t last long, and won’t be particularly memorable, but you will feel better for it by the end.
You can buy Mythic Ocean from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S