Beyond Blue (PS4) – Game Review

 

An Educational & Peaceful Underwater Game

Over 70% of our planet is made up of water. With that in mind, it’s strange to think there’s still so much we don’t know about our oceans. This largely alien world plays host to a large number of species and is crucial to the well-being and sustainability of our planet’s eco-system. It’s also a wondrous, dangerous and gorgeous backdrop that hasn’t always translated well to the video game medium.

Subnautica came close – bringing survival mechanics and a genuine sense of fear and dread to the watery world, while Abzu brought the genuine wonder and awe thanks to its visual design and colours. Beyond Blue then is a very different experience to those two games. It’s not as pretty or complex with its game mechanics but where Beyond Blue excels is in its desire to present something wholly educational; a tool to be used to help people understand more about our ocean.

Clocking in at around 2-3 hours, Beyond Blue adds a light story to its exploration adventure, filling in some back-story for our main characters in a bid to give a simple enough reason for being in the ocean in the first place. With a largely positive, uplifting tone throughout, Beyond Blue acts as a celebratory look at our ocean and packs its play-time with an abundance of scientific knowledge along the way.

The story here revolves around a free diver known as Mirai. In constant communication with her team-mates Andre and Irina, Mirai searches the ocean and follows a pod of sperm whales she’s been studying, checking on their progress over time. Along the way you experience all the ups and downs the ocean has to offer, with the threat of mining hinting toward man-made destruction and some in-game set-pieces that work really well to add genuine moments of jaw-dropping awe. To tell you what these moments are would spoil the experience, but suffice to say they’re easily the highlights of the game. 

There are 6 dives for you to participate in with the option of free-diving when you’re done with the story. The mechanics are very simple too but strangely addictive as you play through the game. Each dive sees you follow way-points to activate sensors or triggers in a bid to track down different species of whale or shark. Once you reach that point, the view changes to a first-person camera where you rotate the screen to track a new signal in the ocean. This process continues until you hit the last cut-scene of that particular dive and return to your sub again.

This forms the crux of gameplay but along the way the banter between Mirai, Andre and Irina, along with Mirai’s difficult relationship with her sister, given enough emotional depth to prevent these swims feeling mundane or boring. Each dive is packed full of exploration opportunities too and whether it be a shiver of sharks, lonely squid or tricky octopus, there’s a good amount of variety with these creatures and, more importantly than that, each behave exactly as they would in their natural habitats.

Seemingly self-aware of its repetitive gameplay loop, Dive 6 breaks things up nicely as you venture down into the Midnight Zone for a suitably eerie level that ends in heartbreak and quiet reflection. This melancholy tone weighs heavily on the story for the rest of the game and actually works surprisingly well to add an emotional anchor. It’s here where Beyond Blue does a really good capturing what made Blue Planet II such a compelling watch, essentially conjuring up those same emotions and placing them into game form.

Alongside the main chunk of gameplay are Insight videos which are unlocked along the way, usually after an in-game set-piece moment or dive. These bite-size videos act as little documentaries, clocking in at around 2 or 3 minutes a piece, and go into more detail about the different creatures or experiences you’ve uncovered over time. From learning that 50% of Jellyfish species are injured their whole life to a trailer for the exciting OceanX expedition that looks to revolutionize the way we explore our ocean, there’s a lot of material to chew through here that only reinforces how well this works as an educational tool.

Exploring the underwater world feels great too and the controls are simple enough that kids and adults alike can easily jump into this and have a good time. As a minor gripe, pressing square changes your light level from UV and flashlights to different coloured shades but this mechanic is only ever used once in the game. It’s a shame because there’s certainly some potential to expand on this and break up the same gameplay mechanics that dominate large parts of this title.

There’s something strangely endearing with Beyond Blue that’ll keep you playing through to the end. The simplicity of its scan/travel gameplay loop does become tiresome by the end but the calming, meditative state of exploring the ocean and watching these creatures in their natural habitat is worth persevering for. The story has some nice emotional beats and the characters each have their own motivations and a decent level of depth.

It may not be as good as Subnautica or Abzu but it does have the edge over those games when it comes to educational content. For that alone, Beyond Blue is well worth playing through and a reminder of how precious and beautiful our watery world really is.

 


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