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Beyond Blue Review (change eShop)

Imagine getting yourself caught up in a boring marine biology class and it turned out to be a great rock concert about dolphins. That is the edutainment promise and that is what E-Line Media seems to be aiming for more or less with Beyond Blue – but with a cool video game instead of a rock concert. There’s some serious credibility borrowed from the BBC with an “inspired” name check for superstar documentary series Blue Planet II. Beyond Blue, however, is nowhere near the caliber of this program. The great power of a game to show and teach has mostly been overlooked in this collection of good but disjointed multimedia assets.

The latest from E-Line Media is a peaceful third person ocean exploration game about the scientific exploration of marine life. The package is not just a game, but also contains 16 short educational films of around two minutes each, which briefly describe scientifically related topics. In keeping with this academic stance, there is no threat or danger in the gameplay, which encourages thoughtful observation of the environment and the creatures that live in it.

In the near future, you will control a researcher named Mirai who tracks down and documents marine life, especially a family of sperm whales. She conducts this research with an off-screen team of scientists who stream it live, comment on it, and pass on questions from viewers. This isn’t so chatty as to spoil the calm of the depth, but rather gives the screen action a context that could otherwise quickly tire. Between research missions, Mirai hangs out in a submarine where you can listen to a very strange collection of music and watch science videos while episodes of her personal and professional life are played over the phone in voiced, visual novel-style dialogue.

Controls are mostly intuitive, with standard two-stick movement plus additional buttons to get on and off without pointing the camera up or down. To research means to activate a scanner with ‘L’, point a crosshair at a creature, and then hold down ‘R’ to scan. The requirement to get within range of the creatures and follow them with the camera as they move makes this appear different each time and avoids the feeling of a boring clickathon. Each dive you will have to interact with a buoy to look for targets and then swim to the targets marked on your HUD to scan the subjects of your research.

There is complete freedom to explore the tiny dive sites you find yourself in – the “near future” is the excuse for the technology that allows Mirai to swim indefinitely in water of any depth with extremely minimal equipment. Getting Mirai to interact with items on the submarine is a terrible task, but a short and rare one. Fortunately, she is almost always in the water.

Beyond Blue clearly wants to be educational. Apart from the factual documentation videos that are collected in the menu during the course of the game, the missions contain spoken explanations of the underwater life and primarily involve observing and simply recording what is depicted. The concept provides multiple channels for showing, storytelling and teaching: the exploration, the dialogue sections and the videos. The story outside the ocean should draw parallels between the lives of people and other living beings and show the commonality of family ties and social structures. Conversations with your sister about loved ones are overlaid with tracking and documenting a family of sperm whales. Meanwhile, the gradually unlocked videos add gravity to the game’s environments by grounding them in reality.

A lot of content comes together here to try to achieve a goal. It doesn’t actually gel, however. The videos are located in a tab of the menu and are revealed with minimal fanfare. Since they are short, they can be played at the beginning and at the end of missions without being annoying. That would make better use of them, but it would probably also highlight the fact that they don’t relate very well to the content of the missions. Likewise, the dialogue sections don’t really get far in terms of dramatic dynamics, and the relationship to marine life is banal and tasteless. It doesn’t help that the interactions between Narrator and editing feel shallow, like listening to sound files playing in sequence, rather than human interaction.

The ultimate encapsulation of this overall disjointedness is the music player on the submarine. Emerging from the wonderfully simulated sound of the sea, the massive iPod in the cabin seems to be turned up much too loudly and has a small but ridiculously varied playlist that cannot maintain a harmonious atmosphere – and certainly not a suitable one. There seems to be an attitude to just gathering these songs together – and these videos and these voice clips and these levels of a game – just because E-Line Media could. It’s multimedia for multimedia’s sake, like a CD-ROM on a beige PC in a regional science museum in the 1990s. It feels weird like a game set in Microsoft Encarta.

In the midst of it all, there’s a third-person exploration game. Unfortunately, it’s not a great one. While it controls fluidly and is generally pleasant to play, it lacks some basic ways to do more. The level design has its moments – swimming towards the first whale encounter and swimming over a sudden drop in the ocean floor is almost like leaving the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild. However, other potentially majestic moments of awe of the vastness of the ocean are thwarted by pop-ins that reveal that the heartbreaking void of the blue void is actually full of large rocks that have not yet been rendered.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity is to go into the deepest depths of the ocean. This experience is little different from other dives – it’s just darker. If Mirai had to wear a chunkier suit and control something more sluggish, we could feel the oppression of the extreme conditions. This is the kind of thing that video games do uniquely well. That feeling combined with a well-timed video about the nature of the super deep ocean would have been powerful. Instead, Mirai flutters around as happily as ever and another video pops up on a buried menu tab in case you feel like checking it out later.

diploma

Beyond Blue has noble intentions with an urgent and vital message about our impact on the earth. However, it does not do justice to itself. While there is some decent content here – videos, music, sound design, gameplay, narration – those pieces do little to help or improve one another. The gameplay is reassuring, but on a note, the video documentaries don’t frame the missions, nor are they well connected with the narrative. While there are majestic moments when exploring the ocean, the limited train distance and immersion often break the awe. Edutainment is hard to pull off, and Beyond Blue feels less like a great rock concert about dolphins and more like your science teacher trying to do a rap.



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