“Sleeping with the Fishes” takes on a whole new, family friendly meaning in Nintendo and Arika’s Wii exclusive, Endless Ocean. Hunting, killing and violence are passed over in favor of exploration, knowledge and interaction. There is a beginning and an end, but not in a traditional sense. The ocean has been designed for gamers curious about marine wildlife to explore their curiosities without having to worry about beating a clock or out-muscling an opponent.
Endless Ocean’s “story” unfolds in the tranquil waters of fictional Manoa Lai Island. In the Island’s lagoon, players meet up with Kat, a young oceanic researcher whose inability to swim leaves her topside on your research vessel. Her role as a guide is pivotal to learning the game’s mechanics or picking up a quick refresher, when needed, and providing direction on how to proceed through the game’s structured narrative, if wanted.
Your research vessel serves as both the launching pad for dives as well as tool to communicate with the outside world that provides specific diving missions and escorts, gear upgrades, and other valuable information. After a fairly simplistic tutorial, the waters of Endless Ocean are opened up for full exploration by selecting an area of the ocean on a map to move your research vessel towards. There are no un-lockable areas; the entire ocean is made available from the get-go.
There are two main and quite diverse components to playing Endless Ocean: diving in the water and walking around on the deck of your research vessel. The design and player capabilities on the boat are rudimentary compared to what can be done in the water. Aside from talking Kat, entering the cabin to access email messages or other items, or petting penguins and who knows what else that have stopped by for a visit, there’s not much else to do other than walk around in circles.
Moments spent toying around on deck are far outnumbered by time spent underwater. Once wet, players rely entirely on one-handed Wii Remote controls to guide their diver. Pointing at the screen tells your diver which direction to swim in, while pressing the B-trigger sends the diver off on his way. You won’t want to sit too far from the screen as any move you make that sends the cursor off-screen will result in your diver going nowhere. Likewise, swimming too close to objects like rocks or caves add an extra degree of difficulty to the controls, much like camera issues in tight corners that plague some third-person action games.
Even if you decide to ignore the electronic messages sent to your research vessel, there’s still plenty to do in Endless Ocean: namely find new species of fish and underwater critters, study them, and ultimately collect their names in your encyclopedia. If it sounds a lot like collecting Pokemon, it should. Players who are easily lured into “gotta collect them all,” or players honestly interested in learning about marine wildlife, will gravitate towards this mode of play. A touch of Animal Crossing has even been incorporated as certain creatures only come out during the day or night, while others are known to appear during a single season of the year.
Players hoping for an enthralling or action-packed gaming experience will be sorely let down by Endless Ocean. Most of the underwater time is spent searching for marine wildlife, whether on your own or as instructed by a student you’ve taken on a tour, or other goodies you’ve been asked to find via e-mail. The pace is slow, and oftentimes finding a new species will take longer than some levels of patience are capable of enduring.
Once a new species is found, they are identified and researched for information by petting or poking them, completed by shaking the Wii Remote while holding the A button. The practice is hardly a fulfilling experience for finding that diamond in the ruff. Online multiplayer dives with a friend spice up gameplay a hair, but with only 16 basic pre-programmed phrases to use and no headset support, the experience remains solo at heart.
Whether bored or captivated by exploring the ocean’s depths, Arika has done a masterful job recreating an almost alien-like underwater world’s visuals and the deep breathing sound of oxygen via a tank, reminiscent of an empowered Darth Vader. Artist Hayley Westenra’s soundtrack is tranquil enough to put a riled up toddler to sleep, with Akira offering players the option to use their own MP3 tunes via SD card. Of all the games I’ve played on Wii to date, this is the first where textures, detail and colors scream for greater horsepower only Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 can provide.
A remarkably low $30 price-tag makes suiting up to explore Endless Ocean quite the bargain. Just don’t expect to find a “beat this” or “punch that” videogame in the traditional sense. Endless Ocean is more of a next-generation tool designed to spur interest in learning through non-traditional and interactive ways. In that respect, it’s succeeded brilliantly.
– Dan Bradley