Beyond Blue Review
A wonderful underwater adventure
E-Line Media broke onto the scene in 2014 with their puzzle-platformer, Never Alone. The game blended educational elements about Iñupiaq culture and stunning visuals, set against interesting gameplay, creating a fascinating mix of education and fiction. Never Alone caught the eye of the producers of the BBC who were producing a series about the world’s oceans titled Blue Earth II. This led to a unique agreement to create a game based on the footage of Blue Earth II, attempting to capture that same mix of education and fiction. Impressively, E-Line has been able to replicate that effort and vision. While Beyond Blue is a strikingly different game than Never Alone, it exhibits that same dedication and attention to detail. A loving and committed devotion to bringing the real-world beauty of the underwater world to life. But that obsession would mean nothing without the imagination they show to breathe humanity into the aquatic animal kingdom.
The game follows Mirai, a deep-ocean diver and marine biologist who is tracking a family of sperm whales as they journey across the pacific, attempting to learn more about their life cycle from a baby whale she names Andrea. While tracking the whales, Mirai runs an underwater live stream about the different animals she finds and their ecosystem. As Mirai tracks her whales she discovers strange noises and behaviors that lead her and her team to on a journey of science, activism, and personal growth. This all plays out in the foreground, meanwhile, Mirai’s grandmother, her diving inspiration, is suffering from dementia, and her sister Ren is having to do all the caretaking while Mirai is off on her deep-water excursions.
The game is told from the perspective of marine biologists and is clearly a love letter to the work they do, highlighting the sacrifices they make and why they make them. Mirai and her team are the main characters, but the star is the ocean. Again, E-Line spends much of the game seeding information about the inhabitants of the deep and the lives they lead. Mirai observes fish, dolphins, sharks, orcas, humpback whales, squids, octopi, and so much more in an effort to document the ocean. As you explore, the game interjects 1-3 minute live-action documentary features as a reward, contextualizing the world they’re building. So if you’re ever thinking, “This seems too surreal to be true,” that thought is rebuked by the documentary footage included in the game. It’s largely successful; the game never comes off as dry as a science class video, but also never lets the personal stories distract from the focus of the ocean. There are some pacing issues and while I appreciate the tight four-hour playtime, the game would have benefitted from a few extra dive sessions that would have allowed the player more time to marinate on the game’s themes.
The game cycles between two forms of gameplay, the time spent diving and cataloging life underwater, and time spent in Marai’s submarine. It effectively breaks up the game, assuring that you’re never going to spend too much time in either location. The mix demonstrates the parts of Mirai’s life that are at odds, her responsibilities to her family, and her love of the ocean. While in the water, your primary gameplay mechanics will be to catalog the different creatures by scanning them. The underwater controls are well-tuned – having suffered through dozens of underwater levels all with their own brand of frustrating controls, Beyond Blue plays impressively precise. The game relies on the shoulder buttons to control your ascent and descent and to scan animals. You will also occasionally use the face buttons on the controller to interact with objects or use a drone to more closely scan. The loop of the gameplay is straightforward – find buoys throughout the area, interact with them, scan the animals the buoy instructs, and repeat.
Once you’ve completed all the objectives in your dive, you return to the submarine where you can press face buttons to interact with Mirai’s belongings, change the music, review the creatures you’ve cataloged, or take calls from Ren and the team. During these calls, you can make small dialogue choices, nothing that will influence the story, but little changes to the conversation that make Mirai a little more personal to the player. These sections are used to flesh out the characters -- you learn about your team and their personal hang-ups, but more than anything you get a sense of who Mirai is and what she cares about. This motivates the player to continue diving, continue exploring because it’s important to Mirai and through these environmental interactions and dialogue choices the game invites you to relate and get close to her.
The setup and execution are simple (occasionally too simple), but this does leave room for the stunning visuals. Beyond Blue is almost like a living deep-ocean diorama that invites you to slowly pan over every reef and poke around every cave. The short playtime of the game means that players are more likely to milk the dive sessions and not fret about how much time will be lost side-tracking yourself since the areas aren’t overly large. This is a game with a sharp focus and it doesn’t want players to be worried about getting lost in expansive levels. This allows for more details in the world. Little interactions can play out as Mirai stumbles into an octopus’ hiding spot or stops to play with a dolphin, and it’s beautifully brought to life. The vivid colors of the ocean and its strange world have been painstakingly rendered. Each dive is used to highlight a different biome, moving deeper and deeper until you hit the claustrophobic dark of the ocean floor.
The game hides loading screens for dives behind journal entries Mirai narrates before heading into the water. They’d be on the long side if there wasn’t something to distract you. Aside from that, there were no issues on the technical side. This is important because so much of the magic is reliant on you buying into the world of the ocean and any technical gaffes would have spoiled the illusion.
Beyond Blue has definitely been scoped down in production. The narrative and levels don’t flow smoothly because you can tell that cuts had to be made to get the game out the door. That definitely detracts from the overall experience, but what remains is an absolute joy. So much character, beauty, and wonder have been packed into the four hours of playtime that it’s still a great game that’s worthy of your time and its price tag. Beyond Blue is a mesmerizing underwater experience that had me engaged from the start screen, and it’s the perfect way to escape the world on land - if only for a few hours.