Games come in all shapes, sizes, and budgets. A massive budget triple-A game like The Last of Us Part II is a world apart from an indie visual novel like Coffee Talk, with the scope and ambition of each game setting a certain level of expectation. This same mentality applies to educational games, though more often than not, the expectations for that style of game couldn’t be lower.
While you may have fond memories of “edu-tainment” titles growing up, often the appeal was simply the ability to play a game at school. The games themselves were rarely comparable to the action games and RPGs you could play at home. It’s probably for the best then that Beyond Blue walks an interesting line between indie narrative exploration and a marine biology lesson.
Beyond Blue puts you in the role of Mirai, a deep sea scientist working for OceanX, the real-life organization that partnered with the BBC to create Blue Planet II. In the game, OceanX is a bit more advanced and futuristic, allowing Mirai to live in an underwater vessel that looks like a room straight out of Mass Effect’s Normandy.
As she goes out on various dives in a sci-fi-skin-tight diving suit, she is assisted by various drones and high-tech gadgets. Her goal: to scan and analyze the various sea creatures while tracking a pod of sperm whales.
In gameplay terms, this translates to you swimming around a chunk of the ocean, highlighting sea life, scanning it, and following objective markers throughout the environment. You often start a dive by heading to various buoys that act like watchtowers in open world games, allowing you to spot your objectives. Those objectives are always the same: scan, scan, and scan some more.
The simplistic gameplay serves the goals of the game well enough. I found myself tempted to spend extra time in each dive scanning all of the dolphins and hammerhead sharks because the game told me I’d scanned 12 out of 15 so far.
Beyond Blue’s one major mechanic outside of swimming and scanning is a sort of full body scan. In this mode you use a drone to navigate across the body of a massive sperm whale or orca to check for unique markings or listen to their songs. This isn’t all that different from the regular scanning, and to be honest the controls were touchy enough that I could have done without it.
Between dives, you spend a few minutes in your tiny home under the ocean, checking messages and speaking with your crew on the surface. The small cast of characters are decently fleshed out, all things considered, and the game even has some dialogue options throughout to keep it intriguing. The story won’t win any awards, and it’s a bit too twee for my tastes, but it works well enough.
Where that message is a lot more direct is within the 2-3 minute documentaries you unlock over the course of the game. Here, real-world scientists lend their passion to teaching the player a bit more about the things they see within the game. Each time a unique ocean scenario presents itself in-game—like a giant octopus sighting or a deep ocean brine pool—you can be sure there will be a video explaining what makes it so special.
This is where the game fully embraces its edu-tainment ambitions, and honestly I was there for it. I already spend hours compulsively collecting meaningless trinkets in games for even more meaningless trophies or achievement points, so it was nice to find that effort rewarded with something of actual value.
Beyond Blue is a surprisingly polished and beautiful game. The underwater environments can feel a bit too pristine, but the creatures of the sea are lovingly crafted and the lighting gets the point across. The gameplay is very simplistic, but the game doesn’t wear out its welcome over the course of 4-5 hours. The story is well-acted, the controls feel solid, and there was little in the way of glitches or technical issues.
That presents a bit of a no-win scenario for Beyond Blue, though. For as few expectations as I had, the clear effort by the team involved only left me wanting more. I wanted to do more than swim around and scan things. I wanted more than a glorified collect-a-thon. I wanted a deeper connection between the live-action unlockables and the narrative. I wanted the lighting effects of the ocean to fully transport me into another world.
I came away wanting more than Beyond Blue was ever going to provide. In a weird way, it’s a compliment to the game that I came away from wanting something more ambitious. In another universe, Beyond Blue would have the budget and resources of a game like The Last of Us Part II. In another universe it would be that much closer to the real world ocean, and that much closer to engaging players with its ultimate message of ocean conservation.
For now though, the fish-scanning indie narrative collect-a-thon with documentary unlockables will do.