"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.