The ultimate laid-back, chill-out experience, Arika's Endless Ocean is another in a series of entries into the tiny, nicher-than-niche undersea exploration genre. The difference between this game and the abortive efforts that came before? Endless Ocean is actually good.
Structured as a wide-open, go-at-your-own-pace experience, the game is set in a fictional expanse of tropical seas called the Manoa Lai. The player assumes the role of a fresh diver assigned to a scientific vessel, accompanied by a fellow researcher who acts as companion and hint dispenser. Though the game has a central storyline and sidequests to complete, it's totally optional to participate in them. For players who just want to see some fish, it's quite simple to ignore undesired requests for attention and focus on the uncomplicated joys of piloting the vessel, strapping on an air tank, and getting wet.
In terms of exploration, Arika has done a superb job in modeling the undersea environment. There's a real sense of depth and distance when diving, and the way fish appear and vanish can be quite convincing at times. Besides the expected bright coral reefs and sandy shallows, Arika has bent the rules of underwater geography a bit in order to provide some interestingly varied locations. Besides a mythical Bermuda Triangle-like sunken graveyard, there's a man-made aquarium to populate, natural caves and ruins to explore, and an incredibly unnerving deep-sea crevasse filled with horrors who've never seen the light of day.
Coming face-to-face with a sixgill shark in a cramped cave isn't something I'll likely forget anytime soon, but there's no denying the fact that while Endless Ocean looks good on the Wii, it would look phenomenal on either of the other consoles. I hate to play the graphics card, but in a game where "being there" is half the experience, Nintendo's unimpressive hardware does not work to the game's advantage.
Graphics aside, the interesting thing about Endless Ocean (and the thing that some may fault it for) is that there's no way to die—none of the animals will attack and the diver's air supply is practically inexhaustible. Penalty-free adventuring is the main attraction here, and although some may mourn the lost opportunities of being mauled by sharks or drowning in underwater mazes, I think it was a wise decision to champion a different set of priorities than the average action game would.
On the other hand, an argument for balance in design could be made by noting that despite the game's obvious goal of low-impact exploration, there were many small tweaks that could have been made in order to provide a different flavor for those who wanted it.
For example, there are several elements already included that constitute a "mission-like" structure, but they're so random and laissez-faire that they won't satisfy players who pursue them. In one instance, a person requested that I photograph a particular fish for a magazine. After doing so, I received a mock-up magazine article using my picture, spurring excitement to see where this sidequest went. A cover story for National Geographic? An award for photojournalism? Unfortunately, it went nowhere. I didn't receive any more requests of this sort until after I had finished the game, and there was no payoff or culmination of my efforts.
The rest of the peripheral elements are all the same—befriending and training dolphins is promising, but there aren't any tournaments to win or shows to put on. The inclusion of customizable gear is harmless fun, so why exclude any way to buy it? The fictional islander mythology of shark gods and an underwater city is intriguing, but without any mystery to unravel, it felt like a waste of creativity. All of these things could have contributed substantial amounts of content to what is already a pleasurable experience, but the failure to do so is a glaring example of unexploited potential. With just a little more effort and development, something that's just sort of neat could have been truly spectacular.
Despite the uncomfortable number of missed opportunities and graphics that fall short of current-generation standards, tooling around underwater and leisurely unfolding the central events in Endless Ocean remained unexpectedly delightful and engaging until the end—and even a few hours after. Though it's not for twitch gamers or those seeking an adrenaline rush, it was a treat to see a rarely-served segment of the gaming populace get something not immediately destined for the markdown bins. Here's hoping for a warm reception at retail and a sequel (spiritual or otherwise) that ups the ante.