Even the Ocean has a lot to say. Sometimes the game says it out loud, other times it’s in the silence, the awkwardness, the looming dread. To be honest, it wasn’t everything I thought it would be, but in 2016, in this age of Internet spoilbreathers and big budget over-promoting with trailers every odd week, that’s a welcomed surprised. For starters, I entered Even the Ocean‘s beautiful if troubled world without having touched Anodyne, the previous independent videogame from Sean Han-Tani-Chen-Hogan and Joni Kittaka, also known as Analgesic Productions. Seems like I’ll need to work backwards for now.
The easy, one-two punch is that Even the Ocean is a heavy on the narrative, puzzle platformer about balance, about balancing. Not just the light and dark energies that hold the world together and keep Aliph, our unassuming power plant technician of a protagonist, alive, but also the balance of work and free time, of not overdoing it, of dreams and demands. Basically, Whiteforge City goes from good to bad after a routine maintenance trip to a local power plant takes a wrong turn, leaving Aliph in a position to show what she can do. Mainly, maneuvering safely through dangerous puzzles and solving those light-bouncing conundrums we’re all familiar with after things like Beyond Good and Evil and every Professor Layton title. With Mayor Biggs backing her, she’ll travel the continent, moving from power plant to plant and elsewhere, to save the city she now calls home from total destruction.
Gameplay is structurally straightforward, possibly on purpose, a mix of puzzles, platforming, and chatting. Mayor Biggs will assign a number of downed power plants to Aliph to investigate, and then you can pick which one she’ll tackle first. Each plant (or location) is more or less a puzzle maze, with learning how to navigate rooms blocking your progress. These places have their own theme and teach you, the player, something new about Aliph’s abilities, something vital. One area focuses hard on her maintaining the right balance of energy as she moves between energy-sapping blocks of color, another is all about timing jumps on moving platforms, and one will have you carrying items while avoiding heat-seeking enemies. I personally liked the puzzles involving using her shield the most. There are also non-platforming sections, like in Whiteforge City, which has you exploring different areas via menu selections and speaking with locals to learn more about the world and your place in it.
Let me explain more about the energy system since it is Even the Ocean‘s big draw. Aliph has a shield and bar of energy, represented at the bottom of the screen as chunks of blue and purple. The energy bar greatly affects her maximum running speed and jump height. When the energy slants one way too much, she’ll either jump higher and run slower or vice versa. Sometimes this is inevitable, and other times you’ll need to drop or increase to a certain amount for puzzle reasons. Discovering the when and where for this is a lot of fun and extremely rewarding, though a part of me had a hard time trying to constantly keep the bar sitting pretty at 50/50. If you go too far in one direction, the energy will consume Aliph, reloading you at the last checkpoint, of which, thankfully, there are many.
Even the Ocean is stylish as heck, both in its looks and sounds. The music is oftentimes soft, but moody, lingering behind every jump Aliph makes. It can get real pretty too, soothing, safe-sounding notes to provide comfort in dark times. I really liked a lot of the sound design too, from the noise the statue makes when saving your progress to Aliph pulling up her shield to even the simple pit-pit-pit of the dialogue boxes. The pixel art is…look, I love pixel art. I am never afraid to say pixel art is beautiful, is great, and Even the Ocean‘s art design is stellar. Commonplace locations, like a forest or beach, are enhanced with weird, unfamiliar flora. Many might see this whole thing as yet another 2D indie platformer with retro graphics, but it is more than that. The locations are unique and interesting, like Clearbreeze Island, home to a giant telepathic starfish. Also, every character portrait feels plucked from real life…though I have no way to prove that. Hmm, I wonder who Humus actually is.
Truth be told, not everything worked for me. I didn’t understand why there couldn’t be a single map or mini-map when traversing the overworld. Now, after exploring it fully, the world is not that big and it is impossible to get lost, but having to equip specific maps was a tad tedious to the point that I only relied on it for one puzzle-pertinent part. I also found the inclusion of an inventory misleading and unnecessary, as the number of items added to it over the adventure is slim, and it is as functional and as fun as reviewing your “key items” in any ol’ RPG. Y’know, the ones you can’t do anything with, but carry to the credits. Lastly, I was hoping to find more in the world, in the “dungeons”…some secrets or hidden doodads, but Even the Ocean isn’t about wasting time on inconsequential pick-ups to satisfy us collectible fanatics. At least you unlock some dev commentary buttons after completing the game to explore at your leisure.
At times, over my six hours with Even the Ocean, I was reminded strongly of other adventures, which shouldn’t be shocking. Everything is linked, in one way or another. As Aliph entered each new environment brimming with locked doors, unreachable floors, dangers, and offbeat characters, I thought of Knytt Underground. As Aliph jumped from wall to wall, shifting her energy balance to allow for extra speed, I thought of Super Meat Boy and Mega Man X. The game, at least on the normal playthrough setting, never becomes brutal or punishing, though a few puzzles did take a few tries until I learned the trick to making it through them alive, if leaning hard towards one color of energy. As Aliph took breaks after each plant to check in with Whiteforge City and her friend Yara, I thought of Persona 4 and schedules and the use of repetition. Of its story and conclusion, I couldn’t help but think of Shadow of the Colossus and The Last of Us, of our current political landscape and the hardships many face every day, of persevering against unlikely odds.
Here’s my suggestion: dip your toes into Even the Ocean. Wade in slowly, letting your skin become used to the temperature, to the ripples. When you are ready, comfortable enough, dive down. Submerge yourself. The flood is coming. Now it’s time to find out how well you can swim. Don’t worry–if the waves are too rough, too relentless, you can always play through it on Story Mode. In fact, I plan to do just that for my second go-around.
A review copy of the game was provided to me by Sean Han-Tani-Chen-Hogan and Joni Kittaka from Analgesic Productions LLC.