Version tested: Wii
"Playing this game is almost like taking a holiday from gaming," I wrote when reviewing the first Endless Ocean a couple of years ago. Nintendo and Arika's mild-mannered scuba diving sim was so dreamy, so dull, you could almost have called it the world's most involved screen saver. It seemed to be designed to fill the space on the TV when you didn't want a game to be there: it was pretty, relaxing, untaxing and completely unexciting. It was a lovely respite, but as holidays go, it was a few days on a good beach with a bad airport novel.
Endless Ocean 2, with its dangerously pulse-raising subtitle Adventures of the Deep, is more like a light adventure holiday for the over-60s. It features gentle trekking, mixed company, informative guides, lots of organised activities (optional, naturally) and even a few brief moments of mild excitement to make you feel young again. It's still a holiday, and still a very pleasant gear-change from the daily grind, but it makes more of an effort to keep your interest.
It is also surely the only videogame ever made to feature a lady singing the word "Carrickfergus".
Endless Ocean 2 kicks off much like the first game (itself a spiritual continuation of Arika's Everblue series for PS2). You're on a boat in the South Pacific, diving in shallow waters amid coral reefs and marvelling at the faintly ridiculous diversity of marine life there. On deck, you chat with your captain and dive-master, a salty old sea-dog called Jean-Eric, and his eager grand-daughter Océane. Below the waves, you use the pointer to steer yourself around and focus on, identify and interact with the fish, turtles, dolphins, penguins, jellyfish, sea lions, eels, sharks, whales, and other sea creatures you find.
These animals are still the undisputed stars of the show; they may not have much in the way of interesting AI behaviour, but their gorgeous rendering and animation show off Arika's easy mastery of the extremely niche craft of digital sea life. They inspire curiosity and wonder, and meeting new creatures, especially the larger or stranger beasts, is a genuine thrill.
But you can tell from the way that Endless Ocean 2 ushers you past creature interactions at a gentle trot in the tutorial that it's got other things on its mind this time. In the first Endless Ocean, the obsessive cataloguing of marine biology was a mainstay of the game, a content crutch that became a strangely alienating chore over time. Here, however, it's relegated to being just one of several equally-weighted and optional threads of soothingly repetitive collection and completion. These form a large bank of side-quests supporting a more prominent storyline - one that ties together Endless Ocean's themes of of nature conservation, improbable archaeology and charmingly silly hippy mysticism.
There's something to do with the Song of Dragons - undersea music that curses the listener - and a legendary treasure belonging to an ancient civilisation you've never heard of. Whales seem to be involved, as well as Océane's dead father. It's nonsense, but it serves as a series of excuses for you to embark on a globe-trotting adventure that leaves the calm waters of the South Pacific to have you diving in the Aegean Sea, the Red Sea, at the North and South Poles, and even dodging cayman, electric eels and piranhas as you swim up a river in the Amazon Basin. An idyllic island base serves as a customisable mission hub, and there's even a gigantic Japanese aquarium (run by a strange man with curtains in a wetsuit) that you can populate with all the creatures you find.
By the admittedly non-existent standards of the scuba-diving genre, Endless Ocean 2 is a sprawling epic. It's a good deal more varied and glamorous than its predecessor, and although some of the diving locations are more developed than others, they all deliver varying degrees of fabulously unlikely spectacle, from a cavern in the centre of an iceberg to a sunken Moorish castle. You can even go ashore in certain spots.
It's not just the locations adding spice, either. Your diving crew gradually gathers some colourful (and amusingly but clumsily portrayed) characters into its ranks, including a jive-talking treasure hunter called GG and a Japanese lady scientist. These two, along with Océane, can be selected as diving partners, and they'll provide useful or educational tips and information when they do. You can also dive with a dolphin partner that you befriend and train, and who can offer you a lift and an extra lick of speed.
You can choose to push through the plot as quickly as possible, or concentrate on earning cash and achievement-style titles from Endless Ocean 2's ample diversions. In a marked improvement over the first game, there is always more than enough to do, and you can happily fire up Endless Ocean 2 for 10 minutes and accidentally sink an hour into its cascading collection and exploration. The guiding and photo missions return - involving guiding a tourist to certain animals, or taking pictures of them - and are joined by cartography, assorted quests and special requests, and a much-expanded salvage and treasure-hunting system.
There are fanciful new gadgets to play with, notably the multi-sensor which helps locate and identify salvage items, and the Pulsar, a ridiculous electro-magnetic gun which can be used to heal ailing wildlife or euphemistically "calm" dangerous predators. Its pointer-controlled zapping seems a bit out of place, although I suppose "heal-the-sick-fish-in-the-face" makes a nice contextual change for first-person shooting.
Endless Ocean 2 is a fulsome package, then, further enhanced with classic controller support (which seems like a great idea until you try it) and online options allowing you to dive with a friend, or invite them to visit your customised aquarium or island hideaway, while chatting over WiiSpeak. It isn't stretched anything like as thin as its predecessor, with a greater variety of content, options, and sights and sounds to hold your interest.
That said, its overall character hasn't changed that much. It's beautiful, but a little slow to navigate and awkwardly put together by modern standards; you can tell Arika first started making these games 10 years ago. And while it offers many more things to do, most of them are still based on simple exploration and extremely basic interactions, and ultimately boil down to pointing at the fish (or the shiny thing) and pressing A.
But to criticise Endless Ocean 2 for being boring or twee is to miss the point. It's a peaceful and relaxing experience, with a wonderfully becalmed atmosphere, subdued beauty, and an earnest, innocent attitude - all of them rare properties in games. Even the MIDI muzak and folk warbling of the soundtrack strike the right note, and in this context, the repetitive and simple gameplay has a quietly hypnotic quality. Give it a break, and you'll give yourself one too.
7 / 10