I always attribute Anodyne as one of those great indie titles from the beginning of the PC revolution in my memory. Though I understand a lot of these games actually came out years apart, things like Bastion, Braid, Super Meat Boy and Anodyne stand as cornerstone events that turned me around on what I should and should not be playing. Previously, any interaction I had with indie games was rough and ugly, and also unenjoyable. Anodyne did a fantastic job of cooking up an identity that clearly aligned with older generations of gaming, but brought storytelling and presentation to the forefront in a strange, almost twisted new way. It was memorable, so much so that I still jumped at the chance to revisit it on the Switch a while back. While Anodyne 2 is out there, somewhere, I decided to take a right-hand turn and view the newest iteration of gaming from creators Melos Han-Tani and Marina Kittaka, where they tried their hands at something new, different and utterly engrossing. Let’s get out of the dungeons and into a strange new light. This is Even the Ocean.
Presented as a platforming adventure game with heavy storytelling emphasis, Even the Ocean puts you in the shoes of Aliph, a freshly hired power plant technician who hales from Whiteforge City. In this world, there’s an amazing phenomenon of energy manipulation, what can be called Dark and Light energy (or, quite literally, Purple and Green). Harnessing and directing that energy has led to monumental moves forward in civilization, so, though the job might feel a bit humble, Aliph is part of a grand establishment in the future of the people. However, an accident on the job leaves Aliph in a sudden strange position in which she must get to safety and begin to uncover some bizarre goings on. Recruited by the Mayor, Aliph seeks out the reason for the accident and also what might be the dark truth behind the success that humanity has forged. Will Aliph be able to save Whiteforge City? Or will she realize that the stakes are much, much higher? Thankfully, that all gets answered in a good amount of time (took about six hours), and it was an enjoyable read throughout.
Aliph is an endearing protagonist, which is an important facet in a game like Even the Ocean. Far from self-assured and confident about the path ahead, Aliph is arguably trepidation, trying to simply live life as it comes and slowly getting pulled into a condition that’s far bigger than her pay grade would expect. In fact, there’s a strange testament to how Even the Ocean balances gameplay, world building and storytelling that resonates with me. The Storyteller is a fantastically ominous, omniscient being who helps to give play tips and story clues in equal measure. The Mayor is such a caricature of a leader hell-bent on maintaining a positive projection amongst his constituents that you get the vibe that he could possibly be evil every time you see his manically grinning face. The characters are complex: there isn’t a true evil or a true good because there are reasons, justifications and changes of heart that remind you nothing is simple. There’s a thematic of environmentalism and man versus nature from the drop which escalates to something truly terrifying. Everything flows together smoothly, allowing moments of exposition into what the world at large is like, incorporating a variety of diverse and unique characters (sometimes for just a couple of lines) without feeling like it’s being shoehorned into the overall message. This is something that Melos Han-Tani and Marina Kittaka have positively nailed: capturing the true mishmash of human life without screaming and pointing about how different and inclusive their game has become. And, once you realize the consequences of what is happening with the energy balance and the true nature of the game, you’ll be too focused on what comes next to really care what colour or shape the characters delivering the news take on: it’s that engrossing.
As much as I enjoy the story, it’s important to focus on the gameplay, because Even the Ocean isn’t a visual novel: it’s very much a puzzle platformer. Aliph lives in a world with the Purple and Green energy sprawling everywhere, creating hazards, traps and release mechanics that demand the energy from within her. Adding more purple energy to your body decreases the green, expending green makes the purple build up; it’s an ebb and flow situation that moves throughout the whole game. Being able to absorb additional green causes you to jump higher, whereas a surplus of purple means jumping further, so you do need to tip the scales occasionally to give yourself a leg up into different areas. However, in its natural state, the game will kill you if the energy goes too far and becomes completely light or dark. It’s a constant risk of the job which is why save points are so prevalent and dropped throughout. There will be some areas where you need to basically take the hit and max out on energy without dying, so death, believe it or not, is an expected part of the game.
The controls for Even the Ocean are shockingly tight, and it works out wonderfully in the way the levels unfold and ask of you in terms of performance. At first, everything will seem simple enough: you have a shield that you salvaged from your destroyed technician suit, and that shield can be positioned to block incoming energy. You learn to train the shield to stay in one place with the A button (otherwise the shield will move in the direction you face), and all seems well. Gradually, though, the way and frequency of energy interference increases, until you’re literally being chased by malevolent, ethereal energy ghosts that can beat you to death with no block or recourse. Thankfully, since the ramp up is so steady, all you have to do is be proficient at how you’ve played up until now and raise the bar by one. There wasn’t a single point within the game where things got impossible, but you can’t just sleep on this one. Especially when you need to balance the conducting orbs and other such headaches that require doing it over and over due to self-inflicted incompetence.
Players should know, full disclosure, that this game relies heavily on the storytelling aspect, so the six hours that I put into this game were, almost literally, 60% reading and character dialogue and 40% gameplay. If this isn’t of interest to you, the number of options within the game to create a more optimal approach is sort of insane. You have the choices of Full Game, Story Mode (less focus on some difficult puzzle areas), Gauntlet Mode (speedrun focus, no story) or Warp Mode (jump around the game to any point you’d like). Moreover, there’re additional tweaks in the menu that can be turned on and off at any point. Not a fan of screen flashes or shakes due to health or personal reasons? Turn them off and lets play in a stable environment! Tired of overdosing on energy and needing to restart from an earlier point? Simply make it so the energy doesn’t kill you and let the good times roll. You can also speed or skip the cutscenes (even in Story mode) and make it so that pressing down automatically drops you between platforms, rather than having you do down and A at the same time. Though this might seem minor, it’s really interesting to notice the level of attention they give to speedrunners, some of whom are approaching the sub one hour mark, which is positively insane.
Combined with a more refined pixel art approach than Anodyne but blessed with an enthralling soundtrack, Even the Ocean was a huge surprise for me. I liked the gameplay, but I loved the story, and the way everything played out and was handled from start to finish made me turn away from the television and play on through the night till I finally reached the bittersweet end. If you have any room on your plate for an engaging and enjoyable indie that gives plenty of challenge on top of the plot, then I highly recommend this for your next jaunt on the Switch. A perfect handheld slice of excellent design with substance behind style.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Even the Ocean Review
Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay Value - 9/10
User Review( votes)
A gorgeously built platformer that is utterly saturated in story, Even the Ocean is a memorable tale that begs the question: what is the cost of civilization?