Educational video games tend to be weird, because they struggle to find balance between school and fun. A game that tries to teach us something should do so while being fun to play, if it wants to catch my attention and maintain it. If it’s not fun, I could as easily watch a documentary or something. This game, Beyond Blue, is not a ton of fun, but I have to acknowledge that it really tries to do its best -and sometimes it succeeds too.
So, Beyond Blue wants to teach me about the sea and the fish that swim in its waters, while also talking about the impact of human behaviour. Well, it’s a noble cause and learning about sea creatures is always intriguing -and done well here- but the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired.
First of all, let’s talk about the school stuff. In a clever move, the developers tried to inject some story and personality in their docu-game. You control a woman named Mirai and dive in deep (and shallow too) waters to follow a family of whales and record their movement and behaviour, for science reasons. This gives the game a clear structure, further defined by the small side-stories that are about Mirai’s colleagues and their lives. You will learn about a co-worker’s marriage, you will talk to your sister about your grandma who has health problems and, in general, you will get to know the characters that make up the small cast. The stories themselves are decent, serviceable and interesting enough, the writing is passable too, and the voice actors do a surprisingly good job in portraying the protagonists.
As a result, we have a narrative structure that is not very exciting, but it gets the job done and manages to ground the documentary part of the game in reality, to make us care about the whales and the grandma. It’s a clever twist and the game is a lot better because of it. However, the introduction of choice-based dialogue is not needed here and distracts a bit. Anyway, it’s a story that’s more effective than I initially thought it’d be and this approach should be followed by more people who make educational games.
Also, the premise is used -cleverly- as an excuse to give us straightforward exposition about the fish. Our character is doing some live-streaming underwater, showing the majestic creatures to the public. Naturally, she takes questions from viewers and answers them, taking the opportunity to just talk and give information about the sea, in a way talking to the player, without sounding weird or out of place. Additionally, we can read more about the animals or watch a series of video documentaries (that have nothing to do with the narrative). It’s a complete package when it comes to learning stuff and it runs just over two hours, making it a good way to learn interesting facts without having to commit for a long time.
Sadly, all the aforementioned aspects cannot translate well enough when it comes to actually playing the game. You see, Beyond Blue is really simple. Of course, there are no fail states and gameovers, you just swim and scan fish, you go from one place to another and you collect some underwater items. A game that has so few mechanics should find a way to make them interesting, and this one doesn’t manage. When a video game makes us walk (or swim) large distances over and over, when we are tasked to go from one point to another without having something to do in between, the movement alone should be engaging.
If I’m just walking in a virtual world, I need the walking bit to be interesting or fun. Beyond Blue makes me swim a lot, sometimes without even having something to look at -because the draw distance is really limited- and the controls are not great too. When swimming in open waters, Beyond Blue controls fine. But, when touching the ground or when diving in underwater caves, we see that our character tends to “stick” to surfaces and move in a clunky way -and some scanning sequences are frustrating too, regarding their control scheme.
Usually, this game makes you just hit the “forward” button to go straight to the marker, with zero distractions while getting there. To be fair, there are some distractions: you can scan every fish you find to get additional info about the various species -it’s not bad, but it does get boring after a while. We could at least have a more complex move set, or new mechanics that unlock after a while to keep things fresh.
The presentation, also, creates some problems. The game is pretty enough, the sea creatures are well-designed, the light seen through the surface creates a nice view and the variety between levels tries to maintain our interest in the visuals. However, the technical limitations get it the way. As mentioned before, the draw distance doesn’t allow us to look far away, resulting in a constant fog that looks unnatural. Also, the draw distance affects the way the game plays too, because when we have to find a specific type of fish and we can’t see it from afar, we tend to get a little annoyed and engaging in a form of pixel hunting. The sounds are great, though, and we hear some interesting songs -albeit not while swimming.
All in all, this is a short game that’s pretty, relaxing, and that tries to teach you something while telling you a story. It’s interestingly structured, decently made and there are some fun moments, like the thrill of collecting all scans. But, in general, the gameplay doesn’t manage to complement the story; they just play out like two different, separate parts, one of them clearly better than the other. If you like educational games and if you have a thing for the sea and its inhabitants, you’ll enjoy Beyond Blue. It’s a game that actually tries to be interesting and fun, and mostly achieves its goals.