Sometimes simple is best. As much as I’ll always be on board for the next big AAA action game or time-sucking RPG, I find there’s no better palette cleanser than something with minimum depth and some quick and easy positive reinforcement. In recent weeks, I’ve found this escape in two similar but very different experiences recently. Maneater was an exercise in box ticking and violent catharsis that scratched that itch, but now Beyond Blue has come around and become almost the antithesis to that with a game about studying and supporting aquatic life and connecting with people. As opposed to eating aquatic life and… also eating people.
Beyond Blue puts players in the high-tech wetsuit of a diver named Mirai, whose work with a marine study organisation called OceanX has her diving in the Western Pacific in an effort to track and understand the behaviours of a particular pod of whales and hopefully educate the public at the same time. Presented in the guise of an underwater livestream, the game takes place across nine different dives that see Mirai explore different, distinct areas from atolls to grottos to the open ocean and catalogue the diverse marine life within each.
Along for the ride (well, by way of radio at least) are researchers André and Irina as well as Mirai’s sister, Ren. Despite mostly being about swimming around and observing ocean life, an undercurrent of professional and personal drama runs through the game and lends it some narrative weight that actually works surprisingly well. With well-written dialogue and competent voice acting, the slice-of-life style of storytelling lends an air of authenticity to the game that I wasn’t expecting, and it’s much appreciated. Spending time in Mirai’s sub between dives, listening to her playlist of surprisingly good tunes (the Flaming Lips feature which makes me very happy), checking out what she’s working on/reading and catching up with her sister, Ren, on the phone put me in touch with her personal journey.
Of course there comes a time for Mirai to actually get her feet wet and do some daring deep-sea diving. Each of the nine dives follows the same basic format; swim to pre-planted buoys to survey the area and look for points of interest and then find and interact with them in some capacity, occasionally branching off to complete a request for André or Irina. It’s all very straightforward, perhaps too much so for some players, with no real challenge and only the allure of trophies/achievements to encourage seeking out and scanning every bit of sea life. That’s the vibe though, and it works. Playing through the game’s campaign won’t take more than a couple of hours, but it’s a very chill couple of hours that anyone with an appreciation for the BBC’s Blue Planet documentaries will undoubtedly appreciate.
It’s not without context that I bring up Blue Planet either, as developer E-Line Media (Never Alone) has produced the game in collaboration with the BBC and those involved in Blue Planet II to make Beyond Blue as informative as it is immersive. Real-life species and environments with plenty of factual material to match, messages of conservation and even a series of short, unlockable mini-documentaries bolster the immediate gameplay and bridge the gap between game and educational media. Going into it with an appreciation for marine biology and an interest in environmental activism isn’t necessarily a requirement, but it certainly helps to lend Beyond Blue weight beyond its value as a game alone.
As much fun I had swimming around Beyond Blue’s varied ocean environments and getting up close and personal with a diverse range of aquatic creatures, there’s a caveat to doing so if you’re playing on console. On my modest gaming PC the game ran beautifully and the well-crafted 3D models shone, but the same can’t be said of my experience playing on the PS4 Pro. Textures on the various sea animals are muddy and almost completely devoid of detail, and performance is all over the place. One dive location in particular regularly drops to framerates so low it’s almost unplayable, which is seriously disappointing. If you can play the game on PC, that’s definitely the way to go. I still enjoyed playing through it on console, and the trophy/achievement list is an easy one, but I sincerely hope the developers have the resources to spruce things up post-launch.
For less than the price of a single admission to an aquarium, Beyond Blue is a great way to spend a weekend afternoon. It does get a little ‘been there, scanned that’ before it wraps up, but it also has a ton of merit as both a slice-of-life narrative and an informational tool. It’s only disappointing that the experience on console doesn’t quite hold water.
Reviewed on PC and PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher