endless ocean luminous review

Endless Ocean Luminous Review – A Swim In The Shallow End

A Scanner Deeply.

Even as someone with a near-debilitating fear of large bodies of water (I’m one of those that can’t swim), the ocean – and in particular the real weird, deep parts of it – has always fascinated me. For that reason, some of my most memorable gaming experiences have been titles like ABZÜ, Seaman (maybe memorable for different reasons) and of course the Endless Ocean games on the Nintendo Wii. It’s a franchise I’d always quietly hoped would return, so to see a sequel drop in at the tail end of the Switch’s life cycle with Endless Ocean Luminous feels like a win.

And I’ll be upfront, reviewing a game like Endless Ocean feels kinda tough. If you’re unfamiliar with Luminous’ predecessors, they’re about the most laid-back and carefree gaming experiences you can have. There were loose goals, sure, but the real draw was the vibe, just meandering around the ocean depths as a scuba diver out to expand their catalogue of aquatic discoveries. For that reason, these are games that don’t necessarily appeal to the sensibilities of players looking for direction and porpoise purpose, but they’re wonderful ways to just zen out and kill some time.

endless ocean luminous review

That said, there is a Story Mode here, though it’s not really what I’d expected based on the prior games. Where the originals made progressing through their campaigns a core part of the game, here it feels like an off-shoot of everything. Told across a smattering of chapters, you’ll follow the adventures of your personalised diver and a colleague named Daniel as they attempt to unravel the mystery of the dying World Coral in the centre of the fictional Veiled Sea and restore it – and thus the sea – to its former health. 

It’s an interesting, fantasy-tinged way to tell a deep-sea story, but the way it’s doled out is frustrating. Each of the handful of chapters is split into small sections that regularly last just a few minutes at most and are occasionally even entirely hands-off, and to unlock each one you’ve got to scan a certain number of fish – in the hundreds or thousands at a time – in the game’s actual core modes, the Dives. What this amounts to is that while I was initially intrigued by the whole “World Coral” premise, and naturally already prepared to spend a bunch of time cataloguing sea creatures in the other modes, being forced to do so and not knowing if I was even going to be hands-on in the next unlocked chapter had me entirely uninterested in the Story Mode by the end.

endless ocean luminous review

Thankfully, story isn’t the crux of Endless Ocean and the main draw of going on chill dives to look at pretty corals and a staggering variety of fish is exactly what you’re getting here. There’s almost no “gameplay” to speak of that isn’t just swimming around for an infinite amount of time, pressing a button to scan nearby creatures and collect their “light” as a currency of progression, snapping some photos and occasionally finding bits of junk or small mysteries, but it’s somehow strangely compelling. I sat on the couch in silence for almost six hours on a Saturday, completely fixated on Solo Dives, while my partner played games on the TV. When my Switch OLED’s battery finally died and they asked me what I had been doing for that entire time, I almost didn’t have an answer.

The tricky part is, comparing this to the older Endless Ocean titles on the Wii there’s just a whole lot missing. There’s no interacting with fish or other creatures outside of scanning them, swimming alongside them or snapping photos, there’s no air to manage, no globe to trot and no characters to meet outside of your diving buddy, Daniel, and an AI assistant in the story. In fact, your dives don’t even take place in a consistent location or set of locations, instead you get these randomly-assigned seeds that give you a square patch of ocean to explore that may or may not contain fish or environmental features you’re keen to see, and that awkwardly drop off to nothingness at the outer bounds. It’s all a lot less about the moment-to-moment of the dives themselves and more about the grind of exploration and repetitive scanning with the promise of seeing some rare, mythical creatures once you’ve done enough.

endless ocean luminous review

The underwater areas in the original games felt authored to offer wonderful sights and surprises, but these seeded ones don’t feel crafted in a way that makes exploration engaging. You can literally see the edges of each square of environment that’s been placed in the dive spot at random and match them up to the segments of the 10×10 map you’re in. There’s also no way to go to a specific version of The Veiled Sea with a purpose outside of awkwardly jotting down a 16-digit Dive-Site ID to bring back one you’ve explored previously (minus any progression you made there). I’ll be happy once more players join in and start sharing the neat seeds they’ve found after launch, at least. It’s doubly annoying when the story bits put you in these intentionally-crafted spaces that could be more interesting were the missions interactive for more than a few minutes at a time.

RELATED:  Duck Detective: The Secret Salami Review – Hard-boiled Deductions

I do enjoy that you can add fish to your diving posse and swim around with them if you’d like, although you have to put quite a few hours into the progression system to earn the right to go for a dip with a shark or whale, and most fish don’t tend to stick around all that long. This also gets used for some very light “bring the right fish to this spot” puzzles, but there’s not much reward for that outside of ranking up your diver and unlocking achievements.

endless ocean luminous review

With over 500 aquatic creatures to find, filling up your veritable Pokedex of fish and learning fun facts about them is still very entertaining at least, and I actually had a great time getting to know the ins and outs of different species. After a dozen or so hours I was able to start identifying different families of fish and even specific species just from eyeballing them. Did you know that some fish are horrifying and fucked-up looking? It’s true! It’s disappointing though that you’re not even allowed to see any of the fish properly until you scan them and get rid of the shiny, blue texture they’re initially made out of. I would’ve at least liked a feature that un-hides any species you’ve scanned in other dives so I could just jump into a spot, swim around and look at stuff without having to spam the L button over and over just to uncensor the wildlife.

Of course one massive evolution that this game does have over its Wii predecessors is in the presentation. The Veiled Sea is stunning to explore, even on the meagre Switch. Rich lighting and atmospheric effects with dynamic time-of-day, beautiful environmental features and, of course, hundreds of convincing-looking underwater creatures (at least after you’ve scanned them) all offer a wonderful moment-to-moment experience that manages to make the whole thing compelling even when the seams are showing. It looks and runs great either handheld or on TV, too. Matching the wonderful sights is a soundscape that nicely bobs and weaves between gorgeous musical accompaniments as you drift through sun-drenched reefs and crushing silence, save for your own breathing and the hum of your apparatus, as you nervously creep through dank caves and the pitch-black ocean floor.

endless ocean luminous review

Weirdly enough, the one bit about Endless Ocean Luminous that I wasn’t sure would work, the 30-person online multiplayer Shared Dives, are a bit of fun. These essentially just plop everyone into one of those randomly-seeded dive spots to all contribute to fully exploring and scanning the area. The sense of discovery in solo dives is genuinely multiplied with other people involved, and really makes it feel as though you’re a part of a dive team trying to mine the secrets of this alternate underwater world together. Even the repetitive mid-dive missions, where you’re rewarded with a particularly rare sight in exchange for going around looking for randomly-chosen individual fish to scan, are a lot more fun when everyone helps out with the menial work and then you all rock up to see the new and exciting bit at the same time, throwing up emotes and tags in celebration.

The promise of community-driven Event Dives is also alluring. It’s just unfortunate that so much of the meat of this game seems to have been focused on that social experience, as good as it is, causing the gameplay loop to revolve more around unlocking new diving suit colours, emotes and stickers, rather than the chance to make meaningful discoveries or just vibe on your own – which are things that people gravitate to these games for.

endless ocean luminous review
Endless Ocean Luminous is a mildly confounding product. On the one hand, it's still got that very compelling offering of hours spent drifting through gorgeous oceans and coming face-to-face with hundreds of stunning creatures, without complex mechanics or urgency to get in the way. On the other hand, the overall gameplay experience has been dulled down so much to feel like a backwards step, and the system of randomly-seeded dive spots dilutes a lot of its personality.
Diving and creature-spotting is hugely-chill fun
Fantastic presentation
Shared Dives are actually quite novel
Fish are just neat
Story Mode is anemic and a grind to unlock
Seeded dives don't feel memorable or special
Less interaction than previous games