The fact that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the ocean floors of our own planet might be surprising to some. Sure, space travel is cool, but the likes of the BBC’s Blue Planet series have also shown us how amazing our oceans can be – and that there’s still an awful lot we can learn from its inhabitants.
So, when someone from BBC Studios mentioned to E-Line Media that there were big fans of Never Alone, its BAFTA-winning game that was inspired by, and showcased, Native Alaskan culture, talk of a collaboration with Blue Planet II came up. That’s a chance few would turn down. The result is Beyond Blue, a game that lets you explore the ocean while also learning more about everything that goes on beneath the waves – incorporating video clips from the TV show, including some never-before-seen-footage.
We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the ocean floors of our own planet
It’s an interesting premise, first seen on Apple Arcade in April, and one that delivers in rather different ways to the usual array of mainstream titles. Conventional gamers feeding on a steady diet of Call of Duty and Fortnite will scoff at its simplicity and relative brevity. However, those looking for something rather more serene, educational and perhaps even inspiring, may well see Beyond Blue in a completely different light.
You take on the role of Dr. Mirai Soto, part of a team of oceanographers and marine experts (based on the very real OceanX exploration and outreach initiative) exploring the Western Pacific Ocean. The game is set some 15-20 years into the future, enabling the developers to employ some aspirational technologies, such as the ‘rebreather’ suit that Mirai wears, removing the need for a cumbersome air tank.
Not only does this help with the aesthetics, but it also means you have unlimited dive time, so you never have to worry about running out of air and therefore are free to explore for as long as you like. Also, whereas our previous underwater excursions in Maneater were all about chomping on the local wildlife at will, everything in Beyond Blue is friendly and harmless. We even tried swimming into the mouth of a humpback whale feasting majestically in a swirling 'bait ball' and it still didn’t seem interested.
For the most part navigating the bright blue ocean can be a serene and soothing experience
The end result is that you have nothing to worry about and so everything can be done at your own pace. That said, when you get down into the darker waters – to the point where the light from your suit only stretches for a few feet and the only other thing you can see is the faint glow of any bioluminescent creatures nearby – it can be a little claustrophobic and intimidating. However, for the most part navigating the bright blue ocean can be a serene and soothing experience.
Keeping it Simple
The core of the game sees you tracking a family of sperm whales, but your travels will take in an impressive array of sea creatures, coral reefs and more. Essentially the game is split into eight dives. While you’re free to swim around at will, the core mission structure typically involves using high-tech buoys to track sounds. You then swim out to them, using a scanner to get some basic info and perhaps deploying a drone to zoom in for a closer look. And, well, that’s pretty much it.
We mentioned at the start how fervent action fans will no doubt find Beyond Blue dull, and to be honest at times the repetition can be a little grinding. But that’s not really the point, and those run and gunners are certainly not who the game is aimed at. Those who’ve enjoyed the likes of Abzû, Subnautica or the Endless Ocean titles can find similar pleasure from the simplicity of just swimming with the dolphins and orca whales or exploring the reefs and brine pools.
Arguably, Beyond Blue can be seen more as an educational tool; one aimed at raising awareness of the vast potential of our oceans and the inherent dangers they face. For anyone home-schooling, it could be seen as a handy interactive introduction to the deep blue sea. Outside of the main missions there are some 47 different species to look out for, each with multiple versions to scan (such as 36 bottlenose dolphins) and the more you find, the more snippets of information the game reveals about them.
We’d probably have liked to have seen a lot more of this, as the information is rather limited and more in the way of fun facts or background details would have been nice. So, if you do look at Beyond Blue as a potential teaching tool, then you might want to have access to your search engine of choice to help answer any follow-up questions. Regardless, the simplicity of the gameplay is arguably more about accessibility than it is a flaw – although admittedly not everyone will see it that way.
The Blue Planet Effect
Of course, having the Blue Planet seal of approval is one of the game’s strongest selling points. Not only has this given the developers access to some great footage, but also some great minds from across the industry – some of which have helped to shape the game, with some also appearing in interviews (in absence of the usual Sir David Attenborough narration) to help package the Blue Planet II footage into some great bitesize videos.
There are 16 videos in total, averaging out at around two minutes apiece – long enough to capture your imagination but not so long as to bore younger viewers or detract from the game itself. Two are unlocked from the very start of the game as means of introduction, with the remaining videos unlocked at relevant stages of the campaign. Each has the slick finesse and high production qualities you’d expect, both in terms of presentation and high-definition delivery. The resolution might not always be on a par with the content that the BBC has put out itself, but obviously the devs do also have an entire game to cram into this initial 10GB download and we had no complaints about the quality on offer.
Some amazing footage coupled with great insights into living and working in the ocean
However, partly because Blue Planet got there first and partly because these are short videos viewed between longer gaming sessions, we didn’t always have quite that same sense of awe but there’s still some amazing footage coupled with great insights into living and working in the ocean.
We should also give E-Line Media credit for not going overboard on the obvious environmental issues that are justifiably raised. Things like plastic pollution, commercial mining of sea beds and other human interference within the underwater ecosystem are all covered in both the videos and the game itself, but it never feels like you’re being preached to or force-fed an eco-friendly agenda and there’s a subtlety to the broader message. Presumably the intention is to inspire those that play the game to do a little more research of their own and then just maybe get involved with a good cause or two.
The game itself isn’t quite as good-looking as the video footage but it’s still an impressive and hugely immersive landscape. Your early dives take place near the surface with sunlight streaming through, giving some nicely shimmering waves above you, with the reef below often beautifully lit up to display the richness of life spread across it. Sadly, you never get to breach the surface, with you only 'dry' area being the inside of your submersible where you can view a few accessories and chat with your team.
As you get deeper so the sunlight gives way to twilight and darker blue azures that feel more like being at the heart of the ocean. If we’re being harsh some of the contrasts here could have been stronger (a full HDR makeover would be great) and so having a set-up that gets the best from the darker tones can make navigation that little bit clearer.
It’s worth noting that this was developed by a very small team and so it’s no surprise to see a few cracks in the visuals when you get up close and that there’s more repetition than there is creativity to explore (no sunken ships with hidden treasures to discover, for example). But it’s still a warm and charming place to just relax yourself into and you can still feel a sense of wonder when you find yourself up close with a giant squid or a sperm whale.
The animations are largely excellent as well. Again, it’s all relatively simple because you’re basically just swimming in the same suit and using the same basic actions over and over but it’s a smooth and fluent motion that nicely maintains the illusion of navigating deep underwater. While the creatures themselves are also nicely animated, they don’t really do a great deal, save for a few shoals of fish who’ll break up and swim off if you get too close and it might have been nice to see more ‘life’ going on.
That said, the game does provide some genuinely heart-warming pay-offs with some of its set pieces. There aren’t many, mostly just an ‘outro’ scene for each dive, but they pretty much all hit the mark. From an early view of dolphins playing catch and your first sighting of the new-born sperm whale through to its rather emotional finale, it’s hard not to feel attached to the narrative, even if some of the surrounding storylines (such as Mirai’s relationship with her distant sister and ill mother) don’t really catch on in quite the same way.
Arguably Beyond Blue can be seen more as an educational tool; one aimed at raising awareness of the vast potential of our oceans
The audio also plays its part, without ever really being a major part of the game. Some authentic whale sounds and the clicking of passing dolphins can rattle around the room with pleasing effect, but there's not a lot else going on - although Anna Akana (Ant Man, Awkward) does a commendable job adding personality to the lead character. The subtle score is worth adding a little volume to, as it can help with the sense of atmosphere, although the wider commercial soundtrack is somewhat wasted by being limited to your submersible.
- Exploring the ocean
- Inspiring and educational
- Warming ‘payoff’ moments
- Repetitive gameplay
- Short game time
- Lacking depth
Beyond Blue Review (Xbox One)
Beyond Blue is a title that may divide gamers based on what you’re looking for – which in turn does make it a little difficult to offer a balanced rating. With a short game time (even with maximum exploration you can be done in comfortably under 8 hours, maybe 10 tops) you know you’re going to get action junkies smashing through it in a few hours and bemoaning the dull simplicity of the gameplay in some ‘worst game ever’ rant’. But this isn’t a game for them and the budget £20 price tag reflects its status.
Despite many positives, we wouldn’t necessarily make an easy case for it being a great, or even fun, 'game', in the traditional way you might judge a shooter or racing title. Instead, it’s more of an immersive experience, like those ‘walking simulators’ that simply tell an amazing story – only here you’re given a wonderful underwater landscape to drift through. Take it slowly, soak up the atmosphere, read and learn a little as you go, and let Beyond Blue transport you to a largely undiscovered world. If that sounds like a welcome alternative to the usual guns, bombs and zombies, then this is well worth an all-too-brief visit.
Our Review Ethos
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