Endless Ocean: Luminous Review - Hope You Really Like Fish

  • First Released May 2, 2024
  • NS

The SCUBA simulator has relaxing chill vibes for a little while but quickly runs out of oxygen.

Between the advent of cozy games, farm sims, rhythm games, narrative adventures, and more, we're in something of a golden age of non-violent games. If you want to take a break from shooting and punching and instead just relax with some chill vibes, you have myriad options available to you. Endless Ocean: Luminous is an aquatic take, letting you freely explore the ocean with no danger or violence to speak of whatsoever. It sometimes straddles the line between game and edutainment in ways that could be engaging, but achingly slow progression and a lack of realism leave it feeling washed up.

Scientists say only 5% of the ocean has been explored. The name Endless Ocean, and the unexplored nature of the ocean itself, suggests an incredible degree of possibility and adventure. In practice, though, there actually isn't all that much to do in Endless Ocean: Luminous. You can take part in a Solo Dive, in which you explore a seemingly randomized map; a Shared Dive, which is just a Solo Dive with friends exploring the same map together online using Nintendo's Switch Online service (complete with its usual shortcomings); and Story Mode, which gives you short missions consisting of objectives accompanied by a little dialogue.

With this dearth of options, its approach to progression gating further compounds the lack of variety. After the first handful of story missions, the others are locked behind scanning ocean creatures in Shared or Solo dives. To scan you just hold the L button in the direction of sea life until the meter fills, which then gives a detailed look at the creatures in your scan. But the progress gates are set so absurdly high that the novelty wears off quickly. One of the earliest gates is set at 500 scans, which felt high but reasonable. The next was at 1,000, so I had to get another 500. That rubbed me the wrong way. By the time I reached the next gate, set at 2,000--meaning I needed another 1,000 scans--the chill vibes were gone. I was just annoyed. It's hard to overstate how frustrating it is to spend almost an hour roaming around a randomized map scanning fish, only to exit the map and find I've only gained another 200 pips toward my next story goal. Plus, judging by the creature log, there are just under 600 species of sea life total in the game. Why would you need to scan 2,000 times to see a mid-game story mission?

Not that there's much story to tell. You're a new diver accompanied by an AI companion, exploring phenomena of glowing fish, and sometimes you're accompanied by a brash (but actually cowardly) fellow diver named Daniel. The story missions are short and largely uneventful. Sometimes they end so quickly that I was genuinely surprised. Other times, they feel like a glorified tutorial, which makes it that much stranger to gate it behind so much free-roaming playtime. At least one of them is just a cutscene with no actual diving gameplay whatsoever. Occasionally, the story mode will deliver something unexpected and fun, like a massive or fantastical species of fish, but those moments are few and far between. There is a meta-story involving an ancient relic with 99 slots, which you fill in by discovering certain artifacts scattered randomly throughout dives or by fulfilling achievement objectives, but it feels more like a busywork checklist than a real story-driver.

And because the scanning requirements are so excessive, small inconveniences feel more impactful than they should. It's easy to pick up a fish you've already scanned while trying to register a new one. Every time you scan any fish, it zooms in on them for a moment, forcing you to hit B to back out of the detailed view. If you scan multiple species at once, they're grouped in a listing together, which is meant to be a convenience feature--but new species aren't prioritized in the list, so you need to scroll down to find any with a "???" designation to mark them as discovered. If you don't, the unidentified fish remains unidentified. If you scan a large school of the same fish, they'll all be listed separately. In Solo Dives, the map is slowly charted in segments as you explore, but keeping an eye on the map to make sure I was filling in the little squares meant I could fail to notice a fish swimming by, or I could miss a depth change that may reward me for diving deeper.

Your dives get you experience points to level up, which increases your dive capacity, which you can use to tag sea creatures to swim alongside you. At first, these only include the smallest of sea creatures, but as you build capacity, you can swim with larger ones that are used to solve riddles. A stone tablet might challenge you to come back with a particular type of turtle or a fish that "sails as it swims." Even then, though, the solutions are too rigid. When I returned to the tablet with a "Sailfish," nothing happened, presumably because it was not the specific solution the riddle had in mind.

A Shared Dive in Endless Ocean: Luminous
A Shared Dive in Endless Ocean: Luminous

In addition to story progress and dive capacity, leveling up also opens new but severely limited tiers of customization options. Those include palette swaps for your diver or individual SCUBA suit parts, different stickers to apply to your profile, and emotes. There isn't even a different helmet or mouthpiece, just the default in different colors.

It feels as if the goal was to create a virtual, interactive aquatic museum, and the variety of sea life does support this nicely. It actually is exciting the first time you see a new species of sea turtle or an extinct megalodon shark, even if you know that it can't hurt you. But the mechanical underpinnings get in the way of its potential as a museum too. For example, every species of fish has a blurb with some interesting marine facts, complete with a reading of it from your AI companion. This could be a cool and educational feature, but when you're pressed to perform thousands of scans, it's hard to bother listening to every blurb. There also isn't an indicator for when you've already heard a blurb, and since you'll see species repeated a lot, it's nearly impossible to remember which ones you have or haven't heard--even if you can tell dozens of roughly similar-looking fish apart, which I can't.

In part due to its non-violent nature, Endless Ocean does not present the depths very realistically, even to my layman's eyes. Your oxygen is unlimited, and you don't need to worry about temperature or depth. You'll never freeze or get decompression sickness or drown. More aggressive species will never attack you. Species of fish seem to be scattered more or less randomly around the map, which leads to oddities like finding large-scale creatures in shallow waters, or discovering deep-sea dwellers in middle-depths instead of the deepest, almost pitch-black parts of the ocean where they actually reside. And while this is likely a limitation of the Switch hardware, the fish, coral, and ocean floor themselves aren't rendered photorealistically enough to instill a sense of awe and majesty.

It seems Endless Ocean wants you to spend most of your time diving with friends to pass the time. The Shared Dives option is the first one on the menu, after all, and it is easier to fulfill the simple procedural objectives when you're paired with other divers. But like most Switch games, you join friendly games using a digital code, and there isn't built-in voice chat, so you can't really treat it like an underwater virtual lobby. Even if you could, though, scanning fish with your friends would not sustain the group fun for anyone but the most devoted of sea-life enthusiasts.

Endless Ocean: Luminous could have been a realistic SCUBA sim with all the treacherous hazards that real underwater divers need to consider, a relaxing chill-vibes game that's mostly about finding fish with your friends, or a story-driven game centered around discovering awesome and even extinct underwater beasts. It has pieces of all of those, but it doesn't commit to any of them. Instead, it takes the enormity and glory of earth's largest and most mysterious region and turns exploring it into a dull, repetitive chore.

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The Good

  • It can be exciting to find your favorite fish, turtle, or shark swimming around with you
  • Science blurbs about underwater species are an engaging way to learn

The Bad

  • Scanning requirements for story progression are so high it saps interest in exploring
  • Small inconveniences in scanning mechanics start to add up and feel frustrating
  • Character customization features are bare-bones, mostly palette swaps
  • Some sea life is presented in ways that seem unrealistic, even to a layman

About the Author

Steve played roughly eight hours of Endless Ocean: Luminous on Switch and now wants some sushi. Review code was provided by the publisher.