Considering the seemingly endless yearly parade of sports games and licensed game sequels being released, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there's not much room left for originality in today's video game market. There may not be much room, but games such as Endless Ocean--in which your goal is little more than to scuba dive at your leisure--prove that there are still some truly unique games being produced. Endless Ocean is also a difficult game to review because its slow pace and subject matter are just as likely to appeal to people as it is to turn them off. One thing everyone can agree on is that it is different.
Endless Ocean takes place off the coast of the fictitious island of Manoa Lai. You're a no-name scuba diver for whom gameplay begins on a sailboat with a young woman named Kat. She gives you all the details on what you'll be doing in your time at sea. You'll start off by exploring a few shallow reef areas where you learn the game's simple controls. All you have to do is point the Wii Remote at part of the screen, press a button to swim, and off you go in that direction. When you see a fish or other sea creature, you can focus your attention on it and then learn about it by tapping, petting, or feeding it. Once you see the creature sparkle, you'll instantly know what type of animal it is, as well as a few basic facts. By interacting with the same creature over the course of several days, you'll learn all there is to know about it, and that information automatically goes into an encyclopedia that Kat's working on. There are several hundred types of fish and sea animals in the game, so this task alone will keep you plenty busy.
Once you've explored a few coastal areas, you'll have the ability to pilot the boat. To do this, you open the map and click on a spot. At first you won't have any information on the location, but once you've explored it you'll have information on its name and topography. There are many different locations to enjoy, each filled with different types of sea life. There's a deep abyss that will take you down more than 500 feet, underwater caves filled with ruins, and loads of interesting rock and coral formations. You'll need to visit these locations during the day as well as night to see certain kinds of life such as whales, sharks, squid, seals, penguins, and more. Although you'll probably want to explore for curiosity's sake, it's also how you advance the game's story, which is centered on Kat and her love/fear of the ocean. It's not particularly engrossing, but it is interesting enough to get you to see it all the way through.
At first you'll just learn the ins and outs of diving and be content to explore the sea, but as you progress you'll be able to lead divers on personal tours, recover artifacts from the sea floor, take photos for a magazine, and even stock an aquarium. You'll also befriend a few marine animals, such as a bottlenose dolphin. You can name the dolphin, dive with it, and even teach it tricks. Likewise, you'll be visited by a variety of animals that will suddenly appear on the deck of your boat. It's cool to hang out with penguins and sea lions, but when a polar bear appears, it's a bit worrisome at first. You know, 'cause there's a polar bear on your sailboat.
Although there are actually plenty of tasks awaiting you in Endless Ocean, that's not really the point. It feels as if the developer's goal was solely to create options and then leave the choice of what you do and when you do it totally up to you. In fact, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do in the game. Those of you who are able to make their own fun, enjoy what the game gives them, and really get into the laid-back vibe of Endless Ocean will find it to be a unique--often mesmerizing--experience. Seeing a whale for the first time, exploring ruins that have been hidden underwater for centuries, and traveling to the pitch-black depths of the abyss are truly fascinating experiences and are what make the game special.
As engrossing as Endless Ocean can be, it has a lot of faults that some people simply won't be able to look past. The controls are fairly easy to learn, but keeping the remote pointed at the screen gets old quickly, and every once in a while the pointer freaks out, turning your diver around and causing you to lose your bearings. Most of the time it's easy to reorient yourself, but it can be very difficult when you're in dark water or a cave, and your map isn't much help. Though there are some interesting places to explore, there are a lot of empty, bland areas as well, so after a while the diving can feel repetitive--especially if you're playing for long stretches at a time. Learning about fish by petting them is kind of silly, and it gets tedious once you've learned about most of the fish but still have to at least click on them because many fish look the same. There's also no real danger. Some people will enjoy not having to worry about running out of air, decompressing, monitoring surface time between dives, or the fact that petting a shark you know nothing about is perfectly A-OK. Others will find the lack of any sort of danger boring.
If you love the game and want to share the experience with a friend, or you're not enjoying it and want to try to spice things up, you can dive with a partner. Unfortunately, both those who love and hate the game will likely be disappointed by its multiplayer aspect; it's difficult to set up and not very rewarding once you've joined another diver. First, you'll need to get your game-specific friend code and send it to a friend so he or she can add you. Then you've got to get your friend's code and add it. Finally, you have to arrange to be online at the same time and figure out who will be visiting who. Once you're on the same boat, basically all you can do is dive together, so you jump in the water and follow one another around while looking at fish--just like the single-player game, except you can't advance the story at all. You also can't communicate much, either, outside of some simple one- or two-word phrases that can be displayed by tapping the D pad.
Endless Ocean's presentation is uneven. Sometimes it's extremely beautiful, such as when you're exploring a rainbow-colored reef and an enormous blue whale appears from the ocean's depths and gracefully glides past. Most of the fish and other forms of sea life look and move realistically, and there's a lot of variety to them. The way the sunlight dances off of the water and shines through crevasses to illuminate the ocean's floor is also impressive. There are plenty of beautiful moments, but there are many others that are not so beautiful. Sometimes you'll find yourself swimming over endless sand and rock terrain, where one area is indistinguishable from the next, and with no fish in sight. The visuals are also distinctly better underwater than above. This is a good thing, given that it's a game about scuba diving, but it's also a bad thing because you spend a lot of time on your ugly, aliased boat while looking at ugly, aliased landmasses.
The game's soundtrack, which sounds a lot like Enya or something you'd hear in a spa, is generally off-putting, but occasionally it manages to make the moment, such as when "Amazing Grace" plays as you glide through the water on the back of a humpback. If the included tunes aren't your cup of tea, then you can play mp3 files from an SD card, but you should at least give the default soundtrack a listen before you decide to dive to the soothing sounds of Rancid.
Endless Ocean is worth a look for anyone interested enough in the game to read the review. Sure, its pacing is often painfully slow, and you'll see most of what there is to see in a few hours because the ocean isn't quite as endless as the title indicates. Nevertheless, when Endless Ocean is at its best, it's soothing, beautiful, fun, and unlike any other game out there.