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[Review] Endless Ocean Luminous

Posted on May 6, 2024 by in Reviews, Switch

Endless Ocean Luminous review

System: Switch
Release date: May 2, 2024
Developer: Akira
Publisher: Nintendo

As thoroughly as humanity has managed to explore the surface of our planet up through the present day, it’s a well-known fact that the vast majority of Earth’s oceans remain unexplored. And while plenty of games have sought to make tangible the feeling of exploring an underwater realm, Nintendo’s Endless Ocean series remains one of only a handful that focuses on our planet’s biology first and foremost. It’s been over a decade since the last game in the series, Endless Ocean: Blue World, released on the Wii; that game has held a special place in my heart ever since, so I was excited to see Endless Ocean Luminous announced for the Switch. In some ways, it manages to bring the series forward in exactly the ways I had hoped – its expanded focus on multiplayer helps the sprawling seas feel a little more lively and dynamic, and enhanced controls and visuals make the act of exploring more pleasant than ever. Unfortunately, as an overall experience, Endless Ocean Luminous is a significant step backward from its predecessor in many ways, resulting in a package that feels significantly shallower than I had hoped.

Endless Ocean Luminous is a game primarily about one thing, and one thing only – scuba diving through procedurally generated underwater environments, and scanning various species of fish and sea creatures to fill out your in-game log. The game has a pretty massive variety of animals to discover, from large whales and sharks to minuscule goby and seahorses. Players explore a place called the Veiled Sea, which is presented as a sort of mystical portion of the ocean that has pockets of both saltwater and freshwater, allowing players to encounter species that would typically only be found in lakes and rivers right alongside your giant squid and clownfish. Every time the player kicks off a new dive session, they’ll spawn in a randomized portion of the Veiled Sea, with randomized topography and perhaps the occasional set of ruins to explore. The only way players can ever revisit the same site again is if they manage to visit at least eighty percent of it in a single session, which is how the game incentivizes exploration.

Endless Ocean Luminous review

One of the things I enjoy the most about Endless Ocean Luminous is how pretty its underwater oasis typically is. When swimming near the surface, the waves glisten and ripple in the sunlight; here, the game is at its brightest and most colorful, with candy-colored fish swimming among coral reefs and outcroppings. Dive deeper, and the water will gradually get darker, until eventually your diver’s headset automatically turns on, illuminating the floating krill and rocky walls as you descend. The game can handle quite a few fish on-screen at once, and while the textures of their scales and eyes isn’t necessarily as high-resolution as I would have liked, from a medium distance they generally look quite realistic as they swim about. As a whole, it doesn’t look quite as good as a game like Beyond Blue, but this game has a larger overall scope in terms of its explorable area, and considering the hardware of the Switch I think the team at Arika did a great job with the visuals.

There are pros and cons to the procedurally generated environments, as you would typically expect. The good is that it enhances the game’s replayability greatly for players who get invested in it, and that it heightens the feeling of truly being an underwater explorer when you don’t know exactly what to expect. The primary downside is that, the more dives you do, the more likely it is that you’ll run into the same types of underwater structures that you’ve encountered in the past, or that you’ll encounter a strange piece of floating terrain that really ought to be physically connected to the seafloor. It’s rare for that to happen, but I did notice it once or twice. Overall, though, I think the procedurally generated maps were probably the best option for this title, as opposed to only a handful of handcrafted areas. I generally enjoyed exploring just as much as I did in previous games in the series. The simplifed controls are much more intuitive than the pointer-based controls of the Wii games, too, which should make it much easier for casual players to get to grips with the feel of swimming around.

Endless Ocean Luminous review

While diving, you’ll mostly be listening to the sound of your diver breathing through their respirator, kicking their feet as they swim. The ocean itself gets quieter and quieter as you descend – depending on what creatures are around you, you might occasionally hear the bellowing of a distant whale, but generally the realistic audio design means the focus is on generating a natural ambience. There’s music that will occasionally trigger when approaching a rare sea creature, or when key discoveries are made, but it’s quite sparse, and generally not as emotionally stirring as I would expect from a game about engaging with the beauty of nature. There’s not many tracks, and I think that minimizes their overall impact – a track that initially evokes a sense of grandeur the first few times I heard it wasn’t nearly as effective a dozen dives later.

I think most players considering playing something like Endless Ocean Luminous are likely looking for a low-key, relaxing experience above all else. And certainly, if that’s all you’re looking for, this game can absolutely provide that. But for me, I was disappointed to find that Endless Ocean Luminous strips out a lot of what gave previous games in the series a personality. Don’t get me wrong – I love swimming around and scanning fish as much as the next guy – but I can only do that for so long before my brain starts looking for something else to latch onto, and Endless Ocean Luminous doesn’t really have that.

There’s a story mode, but it’s bland and uninteresting. It centers around efforts to restore a dying coral reef called the World Coral, while simultaneously unraveling the mystery of a long-vanished civilization that lived near the Veiled Sea. It could have been interesting, but it’s frontrunners are a faceless, personalityless dude named Daniel and a robotic AI companion named SERA, whose voice I grew tired of hearing within a few hours of play. They are meekly written, and suffer from not following the “show, don’t tell” rule, making it hard to care about anything they say. While I’m not going to claim that Blue World’s story was some masterclass in fiction, it at least gave us characters that felt more like real people, with emotions and personalities and goals. We at least got to see their faces – heck, there was even a small island to explore in which you could walk around and interact with them. Luminous lacks anything like that, and to me, that’s a bummer.

I also feel like, mechanically speaking, Luminous is a weaker game than Blue World. In the previous game, aggressive creatures like sharks posed a real threat, and had to be respected, avoided, or stunned with an underwater Pulsar device. Here, all sea life completely ignores your presence – you can get right up close to a formidable fish that the game just told you was dangerous, and it makes no difference. There’s also just a general lack of things to do. There’s no above-ground component at all, no aquariums to fill with fish, no meaningful customization beyond changing the color of your suit and putting some stickers on it. There’s salvage to collect while you explore – little trinkets that have fallen to the seafloor – but there’s nothing to do with them other then sell them to unlock the aforementioned half-baked customization options. I didn’t need Luminous to tread exactly the same ground as it predecessors, but it’s a shame that so much of what made the previous games feel more varied and interesting has been totally stripped out.

Endless Ocean Luminous review

Because all there is to do is scan fish and pick up salvage, this is pretty much all I was thinking about as I explored, and the monotony of those actions set in dismally fast. I can appreciate the appeal in learning about real fish, and I also enjoyed hearing the stories behind mythical and legendary specimens when I stumbled across them – those moments can be pretty memorable when they feel earned. It’s unfortunate that finding the coolest animals in the game often becomes such a predictable affair. During a dive, you’ll eventually be informed by SERA that you’re near a rare fish, and that if you can find X amount of them, an even rarer (and cooler) creature will appear on the map for a limited time. But this is the culminating event of pretty much every dive in the game outside of the story mode, and so it quickly becomes uninteresting.

Endless Ocean Luminous encourages players to explore thoroughly – notifications pop up on screen to inform you that you’ve explored a certain percentage of the area, or scanned a certain percentage of sea creatures in the current map. There’s a grid-based map at the top-right corner of the screen that slowly fills in as you navigate. It felt a bit at-odds with what I inherently wanted to do, which was explore organically, because my OCD monkey-brain dictates that if something can be completed in a game, I should try! Once I let go of that feeling of needing to see everything in a map, I felt myself enjoying the experience a bit more. This feels like a game better suited to one-off sessions and short bursts of play, and is best when you try and ignore the pull to complete everything and scan literally all the fish. But then, what does that leave to do? Unfortunately – not much.

The whole experience is definitely better when playing online. Not only do you level up faster – which isn’t really all that important in this game if you don’t care about changing the color of your wetsuit – but it helps make the oceans feel a little less dreary. I genuinely loved stumbling across other players, waving at them, and swimming alongside them for a bit as we dove into some unexplored chasm – it’s one of those types of gaming moments that feels special and memorable. I think it’s really cool that you can tag your discoveries on the map to help other players, and you can see where groups might be congregating if you’re looking for something interesting. It really feels like the driving idea behind why Endless Ocean Luminous exists in the first place. It’s a shame that there’s no in-built voice chat, because that could really help cement this game as one of the chillest social hubs in modern gaming, but as it stands, interactivity is limited. Still, it was engaging enough that I avoided going on solo dives almost entirely after a while.

I’m curious to see how Endless Ocean Luminous will evolve over time. We already know that special in-game events are coming in the form of limited-time dives, although we don’t know exactly what those will entail. If this game can find an audience, it feels like it would be prime candidate for free content updates introducing new biomes to dive in or maybe some new modes. I would love to see that happen, because the bones of Endless Ocean Luminous are solid enough to expand upon… and also it’ll probably be another 15 years before we get another one of these games. I just wish that the package as a whole was a little bit deeper, with a little bit more charm, and a few more mechanics to engage with. As it stands, this newest Endless Ocean feels more like a draft of a game than I had hoped.

The Verdict

Diving into Endless Ocean Luminous feels refreshing at first – no other game I’ve played has so expertly captured the sensation of exploring our planet’s underwater world as this one, and it’s a generally calm and relaxing experience that can be moderately engaging in short bursts. Beautiful visuals, a tranquil atmosphere and a moments of discovery abound… but a half-baked story, lackluster customization, reduced interactivity and a dearth of gameplay modes have a negative impact on the overall package. Endless Ocean Luminous’ strong educational focus can be interesting with the right mindset, but there’s simply not enough going on beyond that to keep the gameplay loop compelling long-term, resulting in an experience that feels more like a proof-of-concept than a proper game. Hopefully, someday, we’ll get another entry in the series that can recapture the magic of the previous games.

Endless Ocean Luminous copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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