My fondest VR memory is of PlayStation VR Worlds, being lowered in a cage down into the ocean depths to see various fish and go down much deeper into the sea than I’m ever likely to in my everyday chip eating life. The last time I played a video game that donned any kind of wet suit and dived into the depths was The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan so the idea of swimming down into the reefs, seeing realistic renditions of whales and the creatures of the deep bubbles up all kinds of excitement. Time to put on a wet suit and dive in to see if Beyond Blue is a whale good time or just a fish out of water?
If you’ve seen any of the BBC’s amazing animal documentaries you’ll be surprised that the above declaration is the first thing you’ll see going in. It’s a very powerful statement to make and unfortunately it creates an unfair comparison. Beyond Blue does try to mirror Blue Planet and tell the story of a pod of sperm whales (focusing mainly on a mother and her baby) but gets lost in a murky side story about the lead scientist and drowned out in dull gameplay. You control the main character Mirai by swimming around in the sea, scanning animals and occasionally interacting with objects. The scanning is as simple as keeping the object in sight for a short period of time and holding a button. This would be fine if there was any reward for the task but the only detail unlocked when swimming is the creature’s name. A feeling of missed opportunity to provide some edutainment consistently flows through the entire experience.
Each chapter of Beyond Blue is either a new location or a different time of day and although there are some genuinely stunning sea life moments these are few and far between. There are larger areas of empty water and swimming across these to the next pocket of life is incredibly tedious. Once plopped down in the water you will need to find your objectives, travel to them, scan or interact with an object and then it’s another dull swim to the next objective. The more you scan of a particular creature the more information is unlocked on their behavior but this information isn’t available until you’re back in the sub between missions. The sub acts as a hub between missions and seems novel as first (once you turn the intrusive radio off) but is strangely lacking. Objects are simply there and although you can look closer at their placement, there is no interaction to be had and it feels sub-par.
Beyond Blue’s biggest problem is how it tries to water down the most interesting aspect of exploring the sea, the life in it. Rather than scanning fish and octopus in their environment and learning interesting facts, you can expect to hear all about Mirai’s live stream, Andre’s fight to saving turtles, Irina’s interest in making vaccines and Mirai’s sister dealing with their Nana’s dementia. When you’re on the sub you’ll be tasked with needless calls to these characters and none of this adds to the experience. The dialogue choices in the sub don’t affect the gameplay either. There is a choice between investigating an illegal underwater mining corp or mapping out sea beds and the choice is irrelevant as you’ll be diving in un-mapped sea beds to find drill parts regardless. It’s an interesting plot that never goes anywhere and is resolved entirely off-screen a hook that never catches.
If you hate the clickers in The Last Of Us then the audio in Beyond Blue is going to completely throw you. Whales and dolphins click and buzz just the same and the marines sounds are great. The voice acting is good for the mediocre dialogue given and the music in the sub is enjoyable enough (once the volume is turned down). It’s a strange setup in Beyond Blue’s sound design though where vast empty swims would benefit from the radio and interacting with optional items in the sub would benefit some voice work. I’m reminded of the pockets of music in Death Stranding and how much Beyond Blue would have benefited from that setup. It’s a relaxing enough audio experience just don’t expect to be blown away by anything. The sounds of marine life can be interesting and Beyond Blue is at its best as a mellow experience seeing them swim by but at its worst its just full of padded blubber.
If you don’t fancy watching Blue Earth 2 and just want to watch the short clips they show at the end about how it’s filmed and the science projects going on in the world, then you’ll be happy to know they are unlockable in Beyond Blue. The strange ‘inspiration’ to the show is almost a product placement at times and the future sounding Ocean X that’s plastered all over the equipment and stream is a real life ocean exploration initiative. The “we’ve only one Earth” narrative is fine for a game all about mapping out the sea but it seems lost on the audience this game is trying to reach. Anyone wanting to play a game about whales and fish is going to know how important it is to keep these environments safe. It’s also strange how single minded everything is, the miners in question aren’t looking for profit for rare minerals for phones and tech, they’re trying to make solar panels. They are correctly portrayed as the villains for drilling where they shouldn’t be but the inclusion of “solar panels” as the cause seems incredulous when the equipment the team is using (despite being near-future) very likely uses them to.
Swimming around in Beyond Blue is enjoyable enough, changing your suits colour to reflect UV and types of light instead of the regular white is a nice gimmick but it’s barely used and doesn’t impact the game more than giving the player something to do when swimming in the dark. There is a second layer to scanning and at times you will need to ‘zoom scan’ some creatures. Once scanned normally the camera focus will lock to that creature and the controls change, shifting to a pivot and turn system to look around them. This sounds fun on paper but results in a lot of frustrated fiddling to scan a tiny bump on the target’s back. Beyond Blue uses this a lot with every level having way-points that are simply to find a creature, scan it and then use the zoom scan to flip around until you find the right spot. It should be a way to marvel some impressive 3D model work but unfortunately just becomes needlessly floaty and bubbles up a lot of frustration.
There are a lot of issues with Beyond Blue but it isn’t all stagnant water, there are some clever little touches here and there. Having loading screens tell the story of Mirai and each day of the dive is a clever narrative tool and had her story stayed there it would have been fantastic. There is no fail option in the game, you can dive head first into the sharpest teeth, the hottest volcanic vents and be fine. It’s hard to find the positives with Beyond Blue as this feels like it could have been a legendary edutainment title but there’s no explanation for a lot of events and they are simply there as visual effects. As nice as the visuals can be the other big problem with Beyond Blue is the lack of feeling like you’re under water. There are occasional bubbles but due to the vast emptiness of some levels and occasionally being too deep to see the surface you can feel more in space than under the sea.
Beyond Blue is frustrating as a reviewer. You can see the potential here for a great game. Live streaming underwater adventures, Pokemon Snap style gameplay with photos of fish, interesting information and an edutainment edge. Unfortunately it’s more dull and frustrating than fresh and fluid. The dialogue is stilted throughout, the difficulty is almost non-existent and everything is surprisingly short. Occasionally the frame-rate can chug a little at busy moments and despite the stunning sky you can never surface or even see the sub from the outside. Swimming along and seeing an orca swim past is a fantastically organic moment but it’s diluted by the long empty swim before and after. Beyond Blue is needlessly padded in the wrong places and has can never seem to focus on what’s important. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch Blue Planet again.
4/10 – When you look beyond blue all you see is grey
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