The problem I’ve always with walking simulators is that they just contain far too much walking. Forget what poets, philosophers and sages from throughout the ages have claimed about the emotional benefits of going for a good walk, they are all wrong. William Wordsworth way well have clocked up an impressive 180,000 miles on his internal pedometer and waxed lyrical about walking’s benefits in ‘Sweet was the Walk’ but he never had to sit through the tedious drudgery of getting from A to B and back to A again in Firewatch before something exciting happened.
Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the story and characterisation of Firewatch, it’s just that it had too much walking. So here comes Beyond Blue with a novel solution; asking you to go for a dip in the ocean instead. This is a swimming simulator, which I’m sure we can all agree is far more interesting than going for a walk!
Beyond Blue squeezes the player into the flippers of a deep sea diver, Mirai. She’s part of a newly formed research team tasked with exploring the mysteries of the ocean through eight distinct dives. Mirai is well equipped for the job, kitted out in all manner of futuristic diving gear that allows her to see, hear and interact with the creatures of the deep in a way no human has ever done before. This means you’ll spend the game swimming with dolphins, tracking down sperm whales and admiring Orcas with unparalleled ease.
It also means that developers E-Line Media have set themselves quite a challenge. For Beyond Blue to work it has to create both a believable underwater environment and a sense of being beneath the waves. Without this it doesn’t matter how great the story is; the illusion of exploring this near alien world would be broken.
Fortunately, they have absolutely delivered. Sea creatures move, hunt and play as you would expect thanks to their peerless animation. There were moments, deep into the game, where I had a palpable sense of wonder. Who knew watching Sperm Whales sleeping could be so magical? Watch anyone else sleeping and it’s a bit creepy, but watching whales sleep? Life affirming. Playing Beyond Blue feels like being inside an episode of Blue Planet II. The only thing missing is Sir David Attenbrough’s iconic tones narrating the events unfolding around you.
in Sir David’s place is Mirai’s two-person research team and younger sister to listen to and natter with, both during a dive and also between missions when you return to the submarine. Voice acting is of a high standard throughout, with a great script and a cast that does an exemplary job of being entirely believable. There’s no clunky dialogue here, but there’s also not a lot of plot either. It’s a sedate narrative that ebbs and flows like the sea itself, gently nudging you towards its satisfying, but all too soon conclusion. There’s no real peril to be found – even swimming with sharks is magical rather than murderous – this is a game that is relaxing, peaceful, surprisingly emotional and, at times, almost meditative.
Gameplay is, as you’d expect from a walking – sorry – swimming simulator, a little on the non-existent side. Manoeuvring Mirai beneath the waves just feels right, she moves gracefully and the controls are tight. Don’t expect to be doing underwater acrobats, as swimming forwards slowly or quickly is the extent of Mirai’s abilities. You’ll use a radar-like device to track points of interest (usually a pod of whales), home in on their location by following sounds, and then you’ll set off to go find them. Once you get there, your sea drone will enable you to scan different parts of the creature. The drone is surprisingly fiddly to control, but thankfully these sections are brief and never outstay their welcome.
Taking a cue from the Metroid Prime series, Mirai’s scan visor allows you to lock on and scan any creature in the game, unlocking additional information both on-screen and also to digest in a long form dossier format back in the sub. It’s a neat and satisfying mechanic, though it’s not without its issues. To scan the visor must be activate, which inexplicably blocks off about a third of your screen. When clearly so much time and effort has been lavished on Beyond Blue’s visuals, why you would want to cover them up with such an unsightly HUD is beyond me.
Mirai’s swim suit can also switch between four different colour modes which, curiously, does very little. One mode emitted ultraviolet light so some sharks could be seen, but it was a feature that was never used again. It’s a curious omission, as having to activate different suit modes to find certain creatures would have been a nice touch. Perhaps something to be returned to in a sequel?
There’s certainly limits to the repetitive nature of Beyond Blue, but the atmosphere, visuals and storytelling will keep you playing through to the end. It’s also a very generous offering, with the eight dives giving you a significant and increasingly varied environment to explore. You’ll also unlock a suite of educational videos to watch that serve to unpack the themes of a game. These are well produced and genuinely fascinating – I watched them all, twice.
You will have to play within Beyond Blue’s world in order to get the best out of it. Attempt to swim into an orca and Mirai will keep on swimming up against it whilst the orca pays her no heed whatsoever, and the same is true of the invisible walls that stop you going too deep or breaching the water’s surface. If you’re happy not to try and break Beyond Blue’s rigid rules, a magical experience awaits you.