Even the Ocean: Review

Disclaimer

I’ve never reviewed a game before, but I had been waiting to play this game for some time and now having completed the main story I have a lot of thoughts that Twitter’s character limit couldn’t do justice to.

The game offers plenty of customisation when setting up a new game, including options to skip cutscenes or all the story elements all together. For this review I changed no settings and went with the mode that was recommended to me as a first time player, my criticisms are entirely through this first time player perspective.

There may be some spoilers though I have tried my best to avoid everything major.

Introduction

Even the Ocean is the second game from Analgesic Productions duo Sean HTCH and Joni Kittaka, their first being Anodyne. I immediately became a fan of theirs having played Anodyne and decided to follow them in the hopes that they would continue to make more games. Sometime in 2013 I started to see screenshots and previews of their next title, and since then I had been anticipating this release.

I’m going to be drawing a lot of comparisons from Anodyne throughout this piece, because I think it’s interesting to see not just how this game stands on its own but also how Sean and Joni have progressed from their debut creation. At face value, Even the Ocean looks like a more ambitious title than Anodyne, which I think demonstrates Sean and Joni’s confidence in their abilities having carried the experience of their first release forward to this project, it boasts a much more story driven gameplay and a whopping 4 hour soundtrack (not including the 90 minutes of bonus material).

General Thoughts

After the first couple of hours with the game, my experience was mostly positive. I was feeling the same mysterious vibes I got from Anodyne, the atmospheric soundtrack, and the mashup of unique environments. I do have criticisms about certain aspects of Even the Ocean, but for the most part I don’t think they spoiled the experience, certainly not enough for me to stop playing anyway.

The opening area immediately gives you an idea of the effort that went into this.

Gameplay

Even the Ocean starts out looking like a regular platformer, but the core of the game is an energy balancing mechanic. You fit on to a spectrum of light energy which alters your vertical movement (allowing you to jump higher), and dark energy which alters your horizontal movement (allowing you to run faster).

The puzzle areas of the game are set out with a variety of obstacles and puzzle pieces which all have the ability to impact your energy levels, go too far to one side of the spectrum and your body disintegrates. There may be times when you need to unbalance your energy level in order to jump higher or run faster to clear a certain jump, but for the most part I would just find myself trying to maintain a balance for safety.

A platform lifts itself while you are stood on it.

Unless you’re speed-running the game, you’ll find that this mechanic plays into the level design more as a tool for puzzles to solve than for obstacles to avoid. For me this was one of the best surprises on offer, after Anodyne I was expecting another adventure, and I got another adventure but more in the narrative sense. When it came to using the energy mechanic I found myself solving puzzles, and with every new area I entered, new puzzles with new contraptions were introduced right up to the end of the game.

An energy spirit chases you until one of those blocks sucks it in.

Each puzzle or contraption was introduced excellently, despite the lengthy dialogues of the narrative driven parts of the game, the power plants were almost completely void of dialogue, you were left to your own devices to get acquainted with and understand the mechanics being thrown at you before moving on to the next room to receive harder puzzles.

The process of being shown a mechanic, figuring it out, and applying it to solve the puzzles, is very satisfying as we saw from The Witness earlier in the year, everyone with an interest in this sort of thing should check out “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” by Raph Koster, this was recommended to me years back and it completely transformed my approach to game design, the process used in both The Witness and Even the Ocean to teach new mechanics relates closely to the ideas discussed in this book.

A short-lived but fun redirection puzzle, in which your shield is used to fill in the gaps.

I felt that the weaker aspects of the gameplay fell into everything outside of the puzzle areas. From the moment you first start exploring Whiteforge for yourself, you are given options on the train service to go to places that you aren’t supposed to go to. I would flick through the list of options at each station, select them and then be told by the protagonist that they didn’t want to/weren’t supposed to go there right now, I feel like the option to go to these places shouldn’t be present until I’m actually able to enter them.

Want to explore? Tell that to the museum policy.

It’s a similar story in the overworld, which initially felt like it was being set up for an open world game where you roam from place to place developing the plot in no particular order. Instead, you might discover a new area, enter it, and then get the same “I shouldn’t be here right now” message before promptly being forced out of that area by the protagonist.

These design decisions create a false promise of free choice and open world exploration, in a game that is actually completely linear in its progression, these decisions are especially misleading to me having played Anodyne, where the world was completely free roam with inaccessible areas logically blocked off by gates or statues rather than dialogue boxes telling you to turn back.

These gripes only stuck out in the first few hours of play, most forbidden areas get explored sooner rather than later (at which point they are freely available to return to) and in the end it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer scale of the game given the size of the team working on it.

Visuals

Just look at that majesty

Another very strong aspect of the game. Anodyne had some stunning and wonderfully diverse environments, and I was hopeful that we’d get to see the same level of creativity from Sean and Joni in Even the Ocean. For the most part they absolutely delivered, the parallax backgrounds (and foreground elements in a lot of settings) convey a great vastness in every area you visit, Whiteforge is this stunning white metropolis that harnesses the power of light energy to defy physics and stand as this impossibly vertical pillar of structures. The natural world of Even the Ocean covers a whole range of environments that feel a lot more grounded in reality than Anodyne’s but still manage to diversify and create this great sense of wonder.

Stunning pixel scenery

My one minor criticism regarding the visuals is that the power plants felt bland in comparison, I value those areas for the gameplay so it’s not something that really bothers me, it was just a shame to see such stunning environments for only a few fleeting moments before being put into a much lengthier puzzle area, almost all of these areas were very desaturated collections of boxes and corridors, I realise that they are power plants but I feel like more could have been included in the same way that the natural landscapes took advantage of vegetation to fill the space, perhaps some exposed wiring, winding pipes, coils, gears, pistons or even some completely fictitious contraption in the background that could be justified as “something to manage the energy levels”.

It doesn’t look bad by any means, but take the large slab of brick wall, or the piping backdrop, they feel repetitive and are covering up a pretty nice looking background.

Audio

Just like in Anodyne, the audio work was integral to the game’s atmosphere. The eerie feeling I got from exploring Anodyne to a distinct lack of percussion was a completely new and unforgettable experience for me, and that same feeling is present in this game. I don’t have much more to say about it but this is one aspect of Sean’s work that I would never want to change.

Favourite tracks were “Magdal Woods Power Plant”, and “Concrete in the Woodlands”, the whole soundtrack is full of these wonderfully melancholy tunes but these two stood out, there is an air of hopelessness in the game as they’re playing, it’s fantastic.

You can listen to the soundtrack on Sean’s Bandcamp page. As with Anodyne, the soundtrack alone is worth a purchase, plus there is a massive amount of bonus material that didn’t make the final cut of the game!

Story

The story itself is a lot more present than that of Anodyne’s, for better or for worse. I’ve always preferred when the narrative takes a backseat to gameplay, these days Dark Souls has become an awesome example of achieving that.

Even the Ocean follows a power plant technician called Aliph, who rises to fame travelling between the power plants to maintain and fix them after a growing number of faults begin to emerge. The plot centers around the theme of balance, the parallels with the game’s mechanics were something I appreciated in that aspect.

The overall flow of the story was fine, the game is divided into acts, each one following a reasonably predictable structure of travelling between power plants to fix them. Though as I said before, it was the narrative heavy portions of the game outside of the power plants that felt least satisfactory.

Coming back to my early criticism regarding gameplay, there were times where it felt like my “access” to the game was bounded by plot progression, the most irritating example I can think of is the new arrival in Whiteforge, I could not leave the area to progress the game because Aliph felt the need to speak to this new arrival “for some reason”. Granted, this character becomes pretty important to the story, but I had no desire to speak to them myself, and the game didn’t really do enough to make me want to speak to them either, it’s another case of being given a choice that I don’t actually have, the cutscene should have just made me talk to them instead of handing control over to me for that brief moment.

I actually do not.

Moments like this made me feel as though the story was hanging over my shoulder like a backseat gamer, ready to nudge me in the right direction whenever I approached somewhere that was accessible but wasn’t “right for this moment”. In Anodyne, the story was very loosely defined by a few brief encounters with the Sage, along with a handful of non-intrusive characters in select areas who would maybe fill in a few small parts of the overall plot with some clues or descriptions.

Outside of those encounters, the narrative was very much decided by you and your exploration, you effectively built your own story by connecting these Sage dots with progression. This difference means that there is very little room for story-building in Even the Ocean, which in itself makes narrative sense as you’re literally being told the story by a Storyteller, but wouldn’t it feel more satisfying to a player if this story being told was one where they had much more freedom to explore? I personally would feel like I had a hand in crafting the story as it unfolds.

Due to the heavy narrative in this game, it felt a lot more serious than Anodyne, which managed to make room for some good humour in between the existential and ponderous characters and bosses dotted around The Land. Of course, Even the Ocean still had its moments…

King Croissant breaking the news to me. Honourable mention: Wilbert the Clown.

Before wrapping this up, I decided to explore the other gameplay options. Thankfully there are settings to make the narrative less intrusive, if you’re so inclined you can remove it from your playthrough all together, choosing Gauntlet mode skips the story and lines the power plants up as a series of levels, putting you in this very nostalgic looking warp room:

Feels like I’m back in Anodyne!

To sum up, I thought the story itself was fine – I actually enjoyed it a lot more towards the end (especially the ending itself but I won’t go into that). I just didn’t care for the way in which the story dictated the flow of gameplay.

Conclusion

This is an excellent game, and for all my gripes surrounding the story’s impact on the gameplay, the options in the main menu show that Sean and Joni did put a lot of thought in to the experience in an attempt to include everyone, it’s a staggering amount of work for just two people, and exactly why I became a fan of their work following the release of Anodyne.

As with Anodyne, they made their game the way they wanted to, creators should do that. Sean and Joni have an amazing knack for creating a unique and mysterious atmosphere in their games, and I think this title stands strongly alongside Anodyne in their increasingly impressive portfolio.

I look forward to their next title, whenever that might be.