We belong to the sea
Although there are admittedly some big names on the scene, ocean exploration games are few and far between in comparison to other genres.
On the one hand, I’m kind of okay with that — truth be told, I’m both mystified and terrified of the deep blue sea, so playing games when I’m surrounded by it ups my anxiety. On the other hand, I’m all for diversity of experience in gaming, so when a road less traveled — or a concept less explored — comes across the review inbox, I can’t help myself. It was natural, then, that I’d inevitably jump at the chance to review Beyond Blue, an educational game focusing on life and death in the ocean.
Developed and published by E-Line, Beyond Blue is a story-driven educational game centered around one marine biologist’s fascination with sperm whales. Available on PC, iOS, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, players will take on the role of Dr. Mirai Soto who, along with her colleagues Andre and Irina, will study a pod of sperm whales and collect biosamples from other organisms to aid in medical research. Of course, the team of scientists are human whose issues do not stay surface-level, and we learn a great deal about Mirai, her sister Ren, and their grandmother, who suffers from Dementia. As Beyond Blue unfolds, we learn just as much about the characters’ dynamics as we do marine life, with parallels running throughout.
Beyond Blue’s premise is to be expected for an educational game — Mirai has been studying a specific pod of sperm whales, and her colleagues, Andre and Irina, assist her. Andre is the tech wiz, and Irina is the founder of a bio-tech company which researches cures for various diseases. Although Andre’s focus is with sea turtles and Irina has a particular interest in the possibilities brine pools have to offer, the pair lend all their assistance to Mirai as she follows her favorite pod, stumbling upon a veritable underwater mystery as the days go on.
Controls are easy enough to pick up; WASD controls movement, shift controls swim speed, and the mouse controls direction. The right mouse button brings up the AR view, which, by clicking the left mouse button, assists Mirai in scanning the various lifeforms across the ocean. F and R buttons will also come in handy, as they manage interacting and cancelling interaction, respectfully. Admittedly, the scanning and advanced scanning took a minute to get used to, but given enough time the controls become second nature. Movement is also nice and fluid, which is absolutely necessary considering the environment, as not a single second of gameplay is spent above water.
Beyond Blue’s aesthetics are pleasing; while the visuals speak for themselves, the ambiance is an obvious selling point. You really do feel like you’re under water, and the environments are a massive part in conveying that. The different levels of lighting make even the same areas feel completely new depending on the time of day, and the deeper you go, the more alien the landscapes become. There are points where I felt apprehensive, thinking that a wrong turn or swimming too far in a certain direction would mean death for Mirai. I definitely felt excited to check out every possible nook and cranny, as something new was certain to be around every corner.
Although Mirai pretty much lives and breathes sperm whales, there’s a lot more to these dives than just her favorite animals. Using Andre’s AR scanning system, Mirai can collect information on all the life forms living under the sea. There is an objective to collect them all, meaning you’ll have to comb the waters to scan each individual animal. Some, like the octopods, only have two to scan, there are others with a dozen or two. Scanning soon becomes all you do, both to drive the story forward and to collect all possible pieces of information. Just keep swimming, just keep scanning!
Beyond Blue’s storyline, although it has some parts that are to be expected, is surprisingly human. While Mirai aims to solve the mystery behind her favorite pod, Andre yearns to know more about the sudden appearance of sea turtles, and Irina speaks at length about the medicinal possibilities of sea floor bacteria, there’s family trouble brewing above ground. On dry land, Ren, Mirai’s sister, struggles with taking care of their ailing grandmother and navigating the college experience. The two had been close ever since their parents died while both were young, but their grandmother’s illness and Mirai’s distance has put a wedge between their relationship. Can the sisters reconnect with each other despite being oceans apart?
Of course, it’s not all human drama — there’s plenty of excitement going on in the water. Depending on the dive, Beyond Blue might feature a baby sperm whale’s first song or its mother hunting giant squid. There’s also evidence of illegal mining in a research zone, which Mirai and the team must quickly put a stop to if they’re to save the precious marine life that lives in the area. In one section, Mirai almost swims headfirst into an underwater volcano, which surprised absolutely everyone — even me! These different events kept Beyond Blue’s story flow interesting, which is honestly a feat when it comes to educational games.
Another highlight of Beyond Blue worth mentioning is the voice acting. Anna Akana (YouTube), Mira Furlan (Lost, Babylon 5), Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Black Sails, Hotel Rwanda), and Ally Maki (Toy Story 4) make up the entire voice cast of Beyond Blue, and their chemistry really clicked. Their flow all felt natural and proper — for example, it came across crystal clear that Mirai and Andre went waaaaay back, but Irina and Andre, who spent most of the time cordially disagreeing with each other, felt slightly distant in comparison. Ren and Mirai, who fought before Mirai left, also had brusque conversations, and the voice acting conveyed this. A very talented cast to say the least!
As for the educational aspect, I hate to be cliche, but you only get what you put into it when it comes to Beyond Blue. There are so many resources available — even video clips from BBC’s Blue Planet II — but they’re not necessarily integral to the game per se. Additionally, you don’t need to scan all the organisms to proceed with the story; this means that you don’t learn everything about any given organism, such as their classification or behavior. With that being said, I did watch a handful of the clips and learned about interesting aspects of marine life, such as different species working together to form “bait balls” as a form of inter-species cooperative hunting. Fascinating stuff!
Despite all my praise, I do have some complaints with Beyond Blue. For one, the campaign is really short — you probably only need two hours with it before you get access to the free dive portion where you can scan to your heart’s content. In total, this is probably a four to five hour experience that is pretty predictable. Additionally, I really disliked most of the music featured on “Mirai’s playlist;” after a nice, peaceful dive, it was unpleasant to be hit with loud music that didn’t seem to fit the atmosphere, so I eventually just shut it off. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was that there wasn’t a lot of motivation to really get involved with the marine life aside from scanning to complete an achievement. It works fine for me because that’s my motivation, but the different life forms didn’t really interact with each other outside of the story points; it would have been nice to catch sharks hunting or something, but they all seemed to have just one swim cycle.
Finally, despite all the wonderful components, such as the voice acting, storyline, mechanic, and educational videos, nothing felt truly cohesive. It all worked together in theme of course, but it didn’t feel blended. I know this is a struggle when it comes to educational games, but despite all the hard work that went into Beyond Blue, something about it didn’t quite vibe. I think it’s more a series of missed opportunities than the gameplay itself, but the lack of cohesion is felt nonetheless.
With all that being said, I still think that Beyond Blue is a triumph for its target audience — those who have an interest in marine biology and want to experience it from the comforts of their own computer. It won’t be a lengthy experience, but it will be a fulfilling one for this subset of people, and I can definitely envision them booting Beyond Blue up just for the free dive portion to swim among the fish and search for whales as a stress reliever at the end of a long day. In that sense, it’s honestly hard to truly complain about Beyond Blue, as it accomplishes what it set out to do.
Beyond Blue has a familiar objective when it comes to educational games focusing on the ocean, but it approaches the objective with a novel narrative. It will certainly appeal to any aspiring marine biologists or those looking for something more educational when it comes to ocean exploration games. If you’re looking for a way to relax alongside gentle giants in their (virtual) natural habitat and want to possibly learn something along the way, look no further than Beyond Blue.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: E-Line; Developer: E-Line; Players: 1; Released: June 11, 2020; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of Beyond Blue given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.