Beyond Blue, from developer E-Line Media, was the first game to catch my attention at the gaming convention EGX back in 2018. At the time I was fortunate enough to preview the game and interview Steve Zimmermann, Vice-President of Marketing at E-Line Media, which you can find HERE. As mentioned in the article, I have a science and research background with a keen interest in nature so instantly, the premise of Beyond Blue appealed to the explorer and researcher in me.
Co-created with BBC Studios and based on the hit BBC series Blue Planet II, Beyond Blue is a single-player narrative-driven exploration game set in the near future. The game places you in the shoes, or should I say flippers, of marine biologist Mirai who is the lead researcher working for the OceanX initiative, the actual research and expedition team that helped fund the game, tasked with charting the waters of the South China Sea.
What sets Beyond Blue apart from other recent marine-life exploration titles, such as the open-world survival game Subnautica or the rather beautifully artistic game Abzu, is the sheer attention to detail in providing a realistic and educational oceanic adventure game, that makes it feel a lot closer to the classic Wii game Endless Ocean which released over a decade ago.
Beyond Blue’s narrative follows Mirai’s main objective of researching a family of sperm whales whilst also touching on ocean conservation issues with the consequences of deep-sea mining. Whilst on this journey, Mirai documents the sea creatures she finds throughout the varied ecosystems she explores in the format of live streams to the ‘home audience’. What I wasn’t expecting from this underwater exploration game was that between dives you get to spend time on Mirai’s submarine base, where you get snippets of interactions with her research team members, Andre and Irina, as well as, learning about her family life through communication with her sister, Ren. These interactions give you a few alternative dialogue choices, however, they don’t influence the game’s story.
What I liked best about these little moments was that they were really insightful in showing the sacrifices researchers have to take when they go away from their home life on these expeditions, whilst also helping to flesh out the personalities of each of the research team members too. This is all greatly supported by having an excellent voice acting cast who did a superb job of bringing the team to life. I would have liked to have seen a little more from the story elements in Beyond Blue as they felt slightly underdeveloped and were an incredibly short section of the game, however, theses sections did help to provide a welcome break between the game’s main core diving missions.
Exploring the ocean is where Beyond Blue really comes to life. Set across eight separate diving missions, you cover a variety of different gorgeous marine biomes, including vast open ocean waters, beautiful coral reefs and the dark trenches of the ocean floor, seeking out brine pools and vents in nearly complete darkness – which is incredibly eerie. Though there is a good range of environments within the game, you do, however, spend three of the eight missions exploring the same area with the only difference being the time of the day that your dive takes place. Therefore, it would have been much more beneficial to have had a few more dives in different locations, maybe having one set in an underwater cave system to offer something new.
Beyond Blue’s exploration mechanics follow a fairly repetitive loop of finding buoys within the area and using these to discover the next location to travel to then discovering interesting behaviours the marine life are exhibiting. As you traverse the environments you can bring up the scanning reticule at any time with a press of L1 and then scan any of the sea creatures you come across by holding R1. This will unlock a profile of the marine life which includes their scientific name and various facts about then and their behaviour. The more of the individual species you scan, the more information you unlock.
Thankfully, the gameplay loop never feels tedious because the controls are so precise. You control Mirai by swimming using the analogue stick and moving up using L2 and down using R2. It’s very easy and responsive compared to many times titles that I have played with underwater sections where the controls often feel clunky and overcomplicated. I’m happy to say that Beyond Blue gets it right as this is very important in ensuring the game offers a relaxing experience that can be enjoyed by all.
The real highlight of Beyond Blue is, of course, the marine life on show. The attention to detail and realism is impressive and there is an excellent variety of creatures that you would come to expect including whales, dolphins, sharks, octopuses, turtles, manta rays, and a vast amount of different fish species. I was glad to see my personal favourite, Mola mola (Ocean Sunfish), make an appearance and I won’t spoil what other unusual marine life you may come across as you delve ever deeper into the depths of the ocean. There are some beautiful and remarkable set-pieces to discover throughout the story of the game that showcases the life and behaviour of some of the marine species.
One such example is a stunning moment of a sea turtle feeding on some jellyfish. These moments are unfortunately few and far between and I would have really loved to have had more of them to discover.
A few weeks before Beyond Blue’s release I visited the game’s Discord server for a Question and Answer session with Kyle Bastion (Lead Artist) and Scot Loving (Lead Animator) and it was incredibly interesting to learn that it was both of their first projects, creating a significant amount of art and animation featuring aquatic creatures. I also learnt that it was harder to animate Mirai walking than swimming since walking is not weightless and therefore there is a lot of counterbalancing and weight shifting that you don’t have to worry about when animating in the water. The most interesting aspect of the Q&A was finding out that with BBC Studios supporting the project, the BBC provided the development team with a great deal of footage to refer too, and that also Ocean scientist, Anna Bakker, worked alongside the team to help ensure the look, movement and behavioural aspect of the creatures were as authentic as possible.
E-Line Media’s previous game, the BAFTA-winning puzzle-platformer Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), featured short Cultural Insight documentaries exploring the Native Alaskan culture. Within Beyond Blue, the thousands of hours of footage that the BBC provided to the team didn’t go to waste and was distilled down to 16 mini-documentaries called ‘Ocean Insights’ that unlock throughout the game. These educational insights each range from between one and three minutes long and offer interviews with leading ocean experts. The videos not only give some fascinating details on some of the species you discover in the Beyond Blue but also information about the technology used to explore the oceans and different conservation themes that expand on those covered within the game.
When the story wrapped, after a little over 4 hours of gameplay, I was left wanting more, which is always a sign of a good game. After the credits roll you can continue to explore the ocean environments in free dive mode to discover any secrets you may have missed. For trophy hunters, there are 31 trophies in total, to unlock, including a Platinum trophy. It’s a very simple Platinum trophy to obtain and you have to pretty much make sure you have found and scanned every creature available in each of the areas. A little advice, you can use the map to help find any creatures you have missed as these will be represented by a small grey circle. This isn’t always clear to see on some of the area maps but it definitely helps you not having to spend an endless amount of time searching for tiny ctenophores (comb jellies) that you may have missed.
I wanted to add that the game’s menu screens and user interface were incredibly basic, clear and simple to use which definitely helps make Beyond Blue more accessible to a younger audience. Performance-wise, I only came across framerate issues on one level where you explore the narrow vents environment, and a little bit of stuttering in Mirai’s submarine too – other than that, the game ran smoothly on the PS4 Pro.
Lastly, the game’s music when on the diving missions is rather soothing, subtle and mellow which helps to compliment the games relaxing exploration experience. I was also quite surprised that when you are on the submarine there is a playlist of contemporary licensed music tracks to choose from. I admit a lot of the artists I was unaware of, but I did recognise the likes of The Flaming Lips – it was also a nice touch that in the dialogue between Mirai and the research team that her music taste was touched upon.
In summary, Beyond Blue captures the sense of adventure via exploring the depths of the ocean better than any marine themed game that I’ve played. The sense of scale, detail and realism is such an incredible feat. Other than the exploration, I also enjoyed the aspects of the game spent with Mirai within her submarine, but I wished that this part of the game had been expanded further to help pad the game out a little more. E-Line Media has accomplished their goal of creating a beautifully engaging game, whilst also acting as an educational tool with the compelling Ocean Insight documentaries. If you have any interest in nature, in particular marine wildlife, then there is no better game than Beyond Blue.
- - Beautiful marine environments
- - Relaxing and engaging gameplay experience
- - An impressive oceanic educational tool which can be enjoyed by all
- - Excels at the attention to detail of the marine species
- - Ocean Insights are a great and very interesting addition
- - Story elements slightly undeveloped
- - Needed more moments of the marine life showcasing their interesting behaviours
- - Additional marine environments would have been welcome