A diver plays Endless Ocean Luminous

When I play games, I play with the experience gained from other games. I might mess around with the combat system to see how it differs from similar titles. I might look at the responsiveness and intuitiveness of the controls and compare them to genre standouts. With Endless Ocean Luminous things were remarkably different; I was always going to look upon it through the lens of my experiences from diving.

I can tell you the date I first dived. On Sept 9th 2021, I did a discovery dive in Koh Pangnam. In a discovery dive, a divemaster leads you around, holding onto your vest and piloting you as if you’re a massive buoyant puppet. It was weird, and it took a while for me to learn how to equalize (a technique wherein you hold your nose and blow so the pressure inside your ears isn’t painful) but it was amazing. As I descended into the sea, a completely new world unlocked. The reefs, the strange fish and the weird sounds all combined to give the effect that I was on an alien planet. Being under the sea is the closest feeling you can get to being an astronaut.

Fast forward to today and I now have over 50 dives logged. I’ve explored shipwrecks at night, seen sharks zooming past at incredible speed, and watched an octopus flash through different colours right in front of me. The only problem is, I have also spent thousands of pounds.

Endless Ocean Luminous

I was thrilled when I saw Endless Ocean Luminous in a recent Nintendo Direct. Could this be something made especially for me? A game that allows me to dive whilst not diving! I could get home from work and go on a dive. The educational aspects also appealed. Identifying and learning about fish is fun and cool. I’d love to learn more about the fish I see on my dives and learn to identify them better. Endless Ocean Luminous could be my Fortnite.

On the other hand, there were a few things that worried me about the trailer. The main one was a floating octopus. Let me explain.

To breathe air from the tank, you need something called a regulator. For the purposes of simplicity, I’ll call that the puck-sized thing that goes in your mouth (technically this isn’t true, I’m just trying to simplify things.) Attached to this are your gauge and octopus. The gauge informs how much air is left, and an octopus is a backup regulator in case your first one breaks. It’s always a good idea to have backup equipment when you’re 30m underwater and don’t have gills. You want to secure your octopus and gauge. You absolutely don’t want them flapping about, possibly getting caught on coral or snagging on things. Yet what do you see in the trailer?

An octopus and gauge just floating about, unsecured. Is it a big deal? No. But I worried. Did the developers have experience diving? Could they capture the essence and the magic if they didn’t have those magic moments themselves? Could I have a dive-like experience at home if it didn’t feel like I was diving at all?

Launch day came, and reviews flooded the internet. Generally, critics were not kind. I wasn’t put off. Of course, the reviews weren’t kind. Slow exploration isn’t the kind of thing that goes down well with reviewers who must complete a game as quickly as possible to talk about it. Surely Endless Ocean wasn’t meant to be speedrun. So, I bought it on launch day and notched up a week’s worth of playtime. Let’s get down to it and see what I thought.

Endless Ocean Luminous has three modes: Group Dive, Solo Dive and Story. Normally Story would be the main mode, but its position is third on this list and the menu screen denotes its importance. Group Dive and Solo Dive modes of this game are where the (fish) meat on these (fish) bones is.

In either mode, you’re presented with an empty ‘9 by 9’ grid and tasked with exploring. You can scan fish by pressing ‘L’ and holding this button down lets you scan lots of fish at once. After scanning a fish, you can get a little pop up with some information, and the camera zooms onto the fish going about their fishy life. This is the best bit of the game. And it’s also the worst bit. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

Endless Ocean Luminous

First, let’s talk about some positives. The vibe is very much alive. The background music is soothing, and the look of the underwater world is generally neat. Many fish look photorealistic, and they each have little animations. The developers have nailed the look of shoals as they congregate in groups and move as one.

The movement, too, is pretty easy. Although I wish it had current modelling. One of the best types of dives, in real life, is called a ‘drift dive’ – the current takes you on a journey and you barely need to kick your fins. A drift dive would be awesome here. I can imagine floating along as the music swells gently in the background, taking pictures like in Pokémon Snap. Sadly, this didn’t make the cut.

Looking at fish and snapping them is what I wanted the game to be about. Only, it isn’t. The photo mode is merely okay. You can take selfies and first-person shots before overlaying them with filters, but it all feels a bit perfunctory, and the filters are not good. Instead, Luminous is about scanning. This should have been called Endless Ocean Prime.

The problem with scanning is that the game wants you to scan everything. Fish are initially shaded blue and release their ‘Luminance’ when scanned. This collected ‘Luminance’ is how you unlock things and progress. It becomes a bit of a chore. At first, I was scanning things and taking my time listening to the information, while looking at fish going about their day. After only half an hour in, I was skipping most of the process as I scanned my thousandth parrotfish. I should never not want to learn about a parrot fish.

It doesn’t help that the voice reading the information is text-to-speech and each fish only has a short paragraph of information. I would much prefer to identify fish myself, maybe using an in-game sealife identification book. Currently, swimming around and scanning everything doesn’t feel zen and relaxing. It feels brainless. For me, diving isn’t about cataloguing or scanning everything or completing a collection. It’s about the meditative feeling of thinking about my breathing and discovery. And Endless Ocean doesn’t nail that meditative feeling. Neither doesn’t nail the feeling of discovery.

Endless Ocean Luminous

Those ‘9 by 9’ grids to explore? They’re randomly generated and generated to contain as much variety as possible. The game is set in a fictional place called the ‘Veiled Sea’, which gives the game an excuse to include every possible biome in each map. You could scan a tropical fish and move a couple of grid places over only to find arctic fish. Potentially, it’s possible to scan nearly every fish in the first map.

This is a disaster, quite frankly. It’s easy to see how it saved the development team time, but instead of a feeling of exploration, there’s a feeling of déjà vu as the same features are found in several different maps. Each feels like a remix rather than a new world. This doesn’t match my experience diving where each dive, even if you’ve dived in that site before, feels unique due to a mix of viability and currents changing the flora and fauna. The thing I love about diving is the feeling of discovery. I might see some beautiful luminescent cuttlefish if it’s breeding season. I might see a whale shark gracefully gliding through the sea. Here, I see the same things every time I dive, just in a slightly remixed package. If each dive stuck to one type of biome (say tropical or arctic) then the game could stretch out its discovery in a more rewarding way, and it wouldn’t feel so fatiguing scanning the same fish constantly.

Shared Dives are the same as Solo Dives, just with loads of other players swimming around the map. I guess you’re supposed to have a feeling of shared discovery and community, but it never felt like that. Because divers can’t really communicate in any way apart from ‘tagging’ interesting things, and because the maps are so big, it generally just feels like a Solo Dive with drive-by humans. There is technically a shared goal of unlocking all the map and scanning every fish. But I never cared about that because it didn’t hold my interest.

Lastly, let’s talk about the Story Mode, because I really think it’s at the heart of what’s wrong with the Luminous. Here you’re tasked with restoring the ‘World Coral’ – a made-up idea that’s clearly a metaphor for climate change and the current state of the ocean. It’s a lovely idea, but a nicer one would have been to centre the story about the actual state of the ocean. You see, in some respects, Endless Ocean skews close to reality. The fish are real, and the information about them is mostly true. The environment is realistic, with excellent depictions of coral and water. Yet there are also mythical creatures, your diving gear is unrealistic and futuristic, and it’s set in a made-up place where different types of environment and temperature can coexist. In many ways, Endless Ocean feels less like diving than Subnautica, a game that contains completely fabricated fish. Endless Ocean can’t decide what it wants to be.

Endless Ocean Luminous

I don’t want a diving simulator, but leaning into the diving world could have improved things. The developers chose not to limit your diving by oxygen. My best guess is that they did this to make the game more relaxing. However, if they leaned into the fact that most dives last around 60 minutes, and kicking uses up oxygen, they could have made the game less about exploring one area in totality and more about repeat diving. Limiting the dive times would have helped hide the fact that there isn’t much variety in the type of maps the game generates. It would have also limited the scanning fatigue that kicks in. The weird thing is that your online sessions are limited to 60 minutes.

Leaning into the real world could have allowed the developers to make connections with equipment manufacturers. Sometimes product placement can enhance an experience. I’d have loved to unlock different equipment which could allow me to go on different dives. The developers would get a bit of cash to put in the budget and they could have enhanced that feeling of exploration. The only equipment options here are different colours.

Similarly, there’s an organisation called PADI, who distribute qualifications for diving. Different qualifications allow you to dive to different depths. Having to unlock the qualifications and using the game to further PADI’s goal to bring more awareness to the destruction of ocean habitats would have been a win-win.

Removing all barriers to seeing all the fish the game has at once hasn’t made the game more relaxing, but rather the opposite. Akira has taken a subject based on discovery and wonder and made an experience about cataloguing.

I don’t doubt that somebody will make an amazing diving game one day. Luminous feels close. The first time I found a fish and zoomed in to learn more about it, it was magical. But that feeling soon dissipated. My issues with this game come from a place of love. I love the idea. The basics are there. But after about 10 hours, this ocean doesn’t feel endless. It feels small.