Version tested: 3DS
I had a friend who spent about three months aboard a submarine, back in his Navy days. He told me how they operated on 18 hour days, had no personal space, and the condensed air prematurely aged you. It sounded like the last thing in the world I'd like to do. As Winston Churchill said, "Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners."
Thank goodness there are video games to translate gruelling scenarios into good, clean fun. The Simpsons' joke about Bart being excited to play a yard work simulator when real yard work makes him run for the hills is becoming increasingly apt. It's certainly true of being a submarine commander, as the job sounds onerous, but in game form, it's curiously gratifying.
The story is hardly more than a haiku. A multinational group of heroes, the "Steel Divers", must stop a "power-hungry rogue nation" that's invaded its neighbouring countries. The script is so minimal that you'll likely forget there is one midway through.
Chances are your first few minutes with Steel Diver will bore, frustrate, or both. Its 2D side-scrolling viewpoint may resemble a 'shmup', but it's really a hybrid between that and a simulation game. You don't have direct control over any of the game's three submarines, but instead manipulate their control panels on the lower screen. There are sliders to adjust direction along the X and Y axes, a wheel for pitch (absent from the smallest "Manatee" model), a "masker" button to throw off the scent of heat-seeking projectiles, and torpedoes that can be launched indefinitely but take time to reload.
It takes some getting used to, as it initially feels like patting your head, rubbing your belly and typing with your nose at the same time. This isn't a criticism, though, as wrestling with Steel Diver's offbeat controls is among its best features. The vehicles may be sluggish, but you're constantly reassessing the sub's trajectory, so you can't stay comfortable for too long.
Eventually it clicks and you learn to command a sub like a pro. It's still slow going, but there's a certain prolonged intensity that comes with its glacial pace. Treading cautiously into uncharted waters requires precision, as you can go from completely on top of things to FUBAR quickly.
Each level ends with a bonus periscope-shooting mini-game wherein you spin around the X-axis launching torpedoes at enemy ships. This can be done either by rotating the 3DS (the manual recommends a swivel chair for this) or using the stylus to aim. Being prone to dizziness and not wanting to look like a fool, I found a happy medium using the stylus to scroll to the vicinity of an enemy vessel, then fine tuning my aim with the gyroscope. There's not much to this mode, but it's a fun diversion which rewards players with decals.
These can be used to add extra attributes to your vessel. Some reduce specific types of damage, others grant a quicker maximum speed along one of the axes, and some contain more unique properties like revealing enemy locations on the map or preventing hull breaches (which leave you unable to use the control panel until you plug the leak with your stylus). Only one can be equipped at a time, but deciding what perk to use adds a smidgeon of strategy. The only problem with these is that you need to collect several of the same type in order to use them, which takes far longer than it should.
Steel Diver's best mode is also its most short-lived. Upon completing each mission, speed trials are unlocked. Punchier and more inviting than their lengthier counterparts in the main quest, these bite-sized maps task you with getting through hazardous – albeit enemy-free – terrain under strict time pressure (between 80 seconds and two minutes). Without the presence of pesky projectiles, you can be more daring in your manoeuvres. Unfortunately, there are only eight stages and only the last few provide any substantial challenge. As soon as it hits its stride, it comes to an end.
That encapsulates Steel Diver as a whole. What's there is good, but there simply isn't enough of it. There are only seven levels in the campaign, and the latter two are unlocked by beating every prior level with all three subs. The different subs are a great way to add variety, but requiring players to negotiate each level thrice only draws attention how thin the package is.
An unlockable expert mode is more exciting than the main campaign, and the option to race against the developer's "ghost" runs gives extra incentive to replay stages, but by that point you'll have seen each map so many times it will be hard not to crave at least a few new levels. There's also a turn-based multiplayer mode, but it's not much more than a variation of Battleship that requires too much guesswork and isn't particularly memorable.
This anaemic nature extends to the visuals. After watching Disney's Oceans and playing Nintendo's Endless Ocean, I've become entranced by the beauty and mystery oozing through our planet's subaquatic terrain. Steel Diver hints at this, with schools of fish, a couple of whales and an underwater volcano, but it stops short of truly immersing us in the the ocean's grim majesty. Environments are brightly lit and it rarely feels like you're more than a snorkel's depth from the surface.
While I appreciate Steel Diver's languid controls, there are times when they're simply not up to task. Homing torpedoes can be warded off, but regular projectiles and air-raid bombs occasionally appear too late to dodge. You also can't turn around. Moving in reverse usually gets the job done, but this would really come in handy during the game's few boss battles.
In spite of its steep learning curve, dearth of content, and lack of depth (both figuratively and literally), Steel Diver grew on me. It may have less to do with being a submarine commander than Trauma Center does with being a doctor, but it's a novel premise nonetheless, and the tactile fidgeting with the sub's controls is strangely rewarding. It's hard to shake the feeling that it was rushed out of port and its deliberate pace won't be for everyone, but those looking for something different might find Nintendo's nautical adventure a promising maiden voyage.
6 / 10