I expected November to be a rather busy month for me new games-wise. Between Owlboy, the new Call of Duty, Dishonored 2 and Watch Dogs 2, it looked like I'd have my plate full for a while. But Owlboy bored me, Infinite Warfare looks underwhelming, and I'm still waiting for Dishonored 2 and WD2 to have functional PC versions, because modern gaming.
It is under these circumstances that I happened across Even the Ocean, an indie game that apparently had some hype behind it, but whose unfortunate release date made capturing the attention of the wider gaming public nigh impossible. Indeed, the game seems to have sold poorly, not least due to the fact that as far as I can tell, there have been no professional reviews of it. Even consumer reviews have not been that plentiful, with only 2 reviews on GOG and only 21 on Steam at the time of writing.
That's a shame, because for all of its flaws, Even the Ocean deserves to be played. In these days of Trump getting enthusiastically Sieg-Heiled into power, a game that not only has a cast overwhelmingly made up of people of ethnicities, sexual orientations and body types that we rarely see in video games, but which also effectively tackles some of the regressive social attitudes these people face, is a beautiful thing to see.
No less importantly, Even the Ocean innovates in a field so few games experiment with anymore - gameplay. Though it can be a bit on the nose, and despite losing steam considerably by the last few levels, Even the Ocean deserves far more attention than it has been getting.
Even the Ocean's protagonist is Aliph, a power plant technician on her first field mission. Power plants have been malfunctioning all over, and Aliph and her supervisor Cassidy have been sent to see what's up. But when things go awry, Aliph is left to fend for herself, and must work her way through her first job all on her own.
It is at this point that players will get to experience Even the Ocean's unique gameplay mechanics firsthand, but only if they want to: Even the Ocean's developers made efforts to accommodate gamers of all ability levels, allowing players to do away with specific mechanics or even do away with the pure gameplay sections altogether. Playing the game the standard way is recommended, but lack of dexterity should not deter anyone from giving it a chance.
Having said that, thought has clearly been put into these mechanics, and it is highly recommended that players at least give them a chance. The world of EtO is ruled by two types of energy, light and dark, and the need to maintain the balance between them as well as their supply to the main city of Whiteforge is what much of both the setting and gameplay revolve around. Interestingly, Aliph has no health bar that indicates death upon emptying. Instead, on missions, an energy bar appears on the bottom part of the screen, showing a proportion between green Light energy and purple Dark energy. If the bar fills up completely with either type of energy, it is, as the game eloquently put it, "curtains for Aliph". Thus, the need to avoid damage altogether is replaced with the need to essentially balance out two different types of damage.
Like all great gameplay mechanics, it's a simple idea that opens up tons of possibilities. Sometimes soaking up energy of one kind is unavoidable, forcing players to plan ahead and soak up the opposite energy before such a phase. Sometimes objects giving either type of energy will be spread around abundantly through a narrow passageway, forcing players to make sure they hit a similar number of objects of either type to make it through. Sometimes you have to activate a switch requiring energy of one kind while being chased by an enemy giving you energy of the opposite kind, putting you at increased risk.
But you won't always want your energy levels to be balanced. Each type of energy is also associated with an axis of movement: light energy with vertical movement and dark energy with horizontal movement. If your energy bar is almost completely green, you'll be able to make very high jumps, and if it's almost completely purple, you'll be able to clear larger distances when jumping. This allows greater movement versatility, while also requiring caution, as bumping into an object which gives you energy of the same color as that which you've already soaked up so much of could lead to Aliph's demise.
The final basic piece of gameplay is Aliph's shield. As in many games, it can be held in any direction to block incoming projectiles. However, it also functions as another way to control your movement, both boosting and moderating environmental effects: for example, holding it upwards as you are being elevated by a geyser will cause you to be propelled higher in the air, while keeping it perpendicular to the direction of the wind will cause it to have less of an effect, making it easier to get past. Combined with charging up on one kind of energy, this makes for very clever puzzles in the latter parts of the game.
With these tools in her arsenal, Aliph makes her way through the plant and eventually returns triumphant to Whiteforge. Having done so well despite her lack of experience, Aliph becomes something of a hero to the people of the city, and has to contend with both the expectations this creates as well as resentment towards her success, not least from those who ascribe it to "political correctness". While not wholly original, the way Even the Ocean deals with these themes is subtle and effective, not to mention brave. Aliph's relationship with Yara, Cassidy's girlfriend, is handled especially well, as their increasing closeness is threatened by Aliph's growing need for affirmation and a resulting lack of empathy.
If this sounds complicated compared to the sort of character development we usually see in video games, it is, and it's pretty admirable how much EtO manages to cover during its fairly short runtime (6-8 hours). However, the attempt to stuff what is a rather complicated and nuanced story into such a short duration is one of the game's major problems. Character development is given, but is never fully explored. One can extrapolate a lot from the dialogue and interactions with different characters, but very little of it is fleshed out, resulting in a lot of potential plot threads that ultimately go nowhere. Worst of all, the game ends with a rather silly twist, involving a predictable and yet confounding Deus Ex Machina that renders everything accomplished by Aliph over the course of the game meaningless.
If the writing has the problem of trying to do much with too little time, the gameplay has the opposite problem. Hardly any new mechanics are introduced after the first level of the game, and evolution is substituted by a very mild increase in difficulty over time, meaning that only the very late parts of the game present any sort of challenge. Even the few interesting ideas introduced early on are employed sparingly: for example, overcharging Aliph with one type of energy is really only crucial in one or two instances. In fact, platformer veterans could probably bypass the intended route of entire rooms with some skill and clever timing. The attempt to make a game anyone can enjoy is admirable, but those who chose to take on the mechanics in full should be given more to do with their time.
It's not uncommon for games to feel too long or too short, but this is the first time I've played one that felt like both at the same time. It almost feels like there could have been two separate games here, one a deep and thoughtful interactive story, the other a smart, short, mechanics-focused platformer, without detracting anything from the experience. The ability to completely ignore either aspect of the game only serves to strengthen that impression. Indeed, Even the Ocean's biggest problem is probably that it couldn't decide which of those two games it wanted to be, and decided it has to be both because that's just the way games are.
It's a shame, and it's a trap a lot of games fall into. Our medium will never truly evolve until it realizes that plot should be inseparable from mechanics, and if the two are indeed so easily separated, they probably don't belong together.
That's not to say that the time spent with the game isn't worth it. If nothing else, the variation in settings, the fantastic art design and friendly interface all make for a very pleasant gaming experience. It just might be more enjoyable in smaller portions, with enough breaks to help one forget that you are essentially doing the same puzzle for the sixth time or so. As of now, despite the game offering a quasi-New Game Plus mode, I doubt I'll ever put the time into it.
And I take no joy in saying that. In fact, I think I know why so many people have been loathe to review this game. It's a labor of love with many great things about it, and having to be so critical of it makes me feel like I kicked a puppy that just wanted to play with me.
Except playing with a puppy doesn't get old that fast.
Even when the puppy does.
I like playing with dogs of all ages, is what I'm saying.
Final Verdict; Still a hell of a lot better than Owlboy.