Even the Ocean

released on Nov 16, 2016

From the creators of Anodyne comes a grand story about Aliph, a lowly power plant technician for Whiteforge City, who finds her world turned upside-down after a routine maintenance trip goes awry. Now, working directly with Whiteforge's Mayor Biggs to face an unknown menace, Aliph must navigate her newfound power and influence to save the city.

Aliph's identities, environmental issues and the world’s fate all hang in the balance of Light and Dark energies.

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I'm a fan of Analgesic's games, this one is just fine. Half of the game is a well made platformer with a good variety of ideas and gimmicks tossed in. The main mechanic of your energy level changing your character's physics is engaging, though the game doesn't push ever push you to use it to its fullest.
The other half is the narrative portion that while breaking up the monotony of the levels doesn't do a whole lot for me personally, concepts don't really develop themselves fully and the main sort of twist is incredibly plainly obvious.
At the start you actually have the option to play either just the platforming or just the story, and despite what I have to say about either I definitely don't regret playing both. It's a solid short game but just bit too casual for my taste.

This review contains spoilers

Also known as an instruction manual on how to (not) cope with the apocalypse.

Even the Ocean is an evocative, dreamlike experience, much like its creators' previous game, Anodyne. What separates it from Anodyne is the relative legibility of its story — the main plot is a clear, straightforward allegory for anthropogenic climate change, and its more ambiguous, inexplicable moments and qualities tend to appear with side characters or on the way to main objectives. It's a competent platformer, with interesting mechanics that usually don't wear out their welcome, though the back third of the game tilts the balance of gameplay and story a bit too heavily towards gameplay, and as a result can feel bogged and slow. In some ways, the ending feels realistic and appropriate; in others, I wish the game had taken its themes and development a little farther. Still, despite that inconsistency, it's very much worth the time.

SIX ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ STAR GAME
wasn’t expecting this at all.
I use game controllers like I use paintbrushes: loose and vibey. Precision platforming has never been my thing. But this bish rite here??!?!
going into this, I knew EVEN THE OCEAN had been criticized as being “preachy,” but not much else. I didn’t know it was going to make me “feel” like I’m capable of clearing megaman levels.
The art: the sidescrolling background illustrations, the platforming level design. Larry David voice Pretttty good. The visuals have an autumnal, unfussy cuteness. However, the people in the game don’t look cute—they look real.
The depictions of our natural world are the most adorable looking parts of this game. The world is magical place, and the depictions of how we treat our world, and each other, are the ugliest parts of this game.
Our protagonist is a technician starting her first day working for the city’s power plants. The 2D platforming occurs while she is on the job. Our hero is a young woman of color risking her life to save her hometown, Whiteforge, from odd occurrences that seem related to the energy these power plants are generating.
And that is why this game is not very popular. It seems that much of the same Games Media that praised Anodyne 1, was not tryna fuck with a real game talking bout real shit. This is the reason why, for years, Capcom was not tryna release those Ace Attorney games, here in the west, that depicted the normalized racism of British people in the 1900s—it’s not prudent to impugn the status quo. “Go woke go broke” they say.
If I recall correctly, in this game, all the main characters (antagonists notwithstanding) are brown, and both relationships given screen time are homo. That resembles my daily life, and perhaps that’s why this game is literally $3 on steam at the time of this writing (i paid the $20 for it on switch, and was a lil saddened that my new favorite game is available at 80% off, and may be relegated to ‘hidden gem’ status, like so many works of art I adore).
Another reason this game will make you uncomfortable is its spirituality. Instead of enemies to kill, your health bar is your ongoing challenge, which begins half light/half dark. Bulbs of light or dark energy shift the balance and you die when you are 100% light or dark. People hate games symbolically about aspiring to find balance within self & within community. Maybe a game about the next mass shooting is more to their liking?
Yeah. So this is New Age Megaman Ferngully, featuring a heavily lgbt cast. 🤯 To make a game with all these ideas figuring prominently sounds unwieldy. That’s why it such a triumph. Analgesic Productions got their chakras aligned all the fucking way down and pulled it off.
I want more bravery from my games, in a world where every big game studio’s toxic culture is being brought to light, I commend those who not only aren’t on that fuck shit, but are making art to inspire kids (FYI this game is still a PG-rated experience) to do better than we have done. That’s love!
P.S. the gameplay is fun af! Figuring out how to navigate certain parts didn’t take more than 3 or 4 attempts. Now I’m over here wondering what other puzzle platformers I might vibe with. But I ain’t gon lie, by the last fourth of the game I did adjust the settings to make it less impenetrable for me. The accessibility options in this game are brazy: if you don’t have time for platform hopping, you can make our hero float through the platforming…or choose story mode and skip them all together. The devs already knew that this was a story worth telling, with or without the gameplay. 🕊
Portraying the complexity of the human condition through a most inclusive lens: 5/5
Speaking truth to power: 5/5
Being written more like a good book/play/film, rather than a video game: 4.5/5
Menu design sometimes being lowkey frustrating: yes
Nuanced sense of humor: very yes

This review contains spoilers

Spoilers only at the very bottom
One part visual novel, one part platformer, Even the Ocean is another example of this trend I’ve been observing in modern game design wherein two different genres are blended together to craft a new product. Whether it’s for the sake of creativity or because the developers genuinely love the parent categories, I can’t say, but the end results have generally been positive for me. Unfortunately, Even the Ocean was a bit of a mixed bag- some parts worked, others didn’t, and I’ll explain what I mean shortly.

Before going on further, I should preface by saying that I don’t believe VNs are my thing. It’s quite possible I haven’t met the right one yet, but every time I have played a game influenced by their roots, it has ALWAYS dragged down the experience: VA-11 Hall-A, Hyperdimension Neptunia, parts of Golden Sun, etc….

As you can probably surmise from this tangent, my primary issues with Even the Ocean come from its VN half: while the platforming isn’t perfect, it didn’t take away from the game the way the former did, and that diminishment is largely because of two reasons. The first is budgetary-related. See, Even the Ocean is indie to its core- it's clear Analgesic Productions wasn’t working with as much cash as would have been ideal, and so the bulk of their resources were (rightfully) invested in the sections with actual gameplay. The problem is, the developers wanted to have their cake and eat it too: they wanted the story to have cinematic moments, but didn’t have the money to bring them to life. The results are discounted scenes wherein high-stakes action or emotional beats are depicted via the old VN tactic of semi-stop motion, or singular frames played one after the other to show the before and after, but not the during, of an event. Anytime a major incident occurred, I was partly taken out because of the lack of animation standing in stark contrast to everything else.

Second is the administration of drawn-out conversations. This is where the meat of the story exists, and without voice acting, you’re forced to read paragraph upon paragraph of dialogue to get the gist of things. If this is fine with you, then it won’t be an issue, but for me it’s always felt like an outdated feature in modern times- either keep the convos short or give me some performance to lace the dialogue with a Shakespearan tinge.

In terms of the quality of the story, I actually don’t know how I feel. I’ve always said that, after experiencing a piece of art, one goes through three phases: the immediate reaction, post-immediate reaction (2-3 days), and the analytical reaction (1+ months), yet I couldn’t quite tell you what my immediate and post-immediate responses are. There are things I liked a lot, specifically the instances of subversion without irritation (unlike Ryan Johnson, Even the Ocean’s writers know how to build-up and and subvert expectations). The reason Analgesic succeeds is because they abstain from doing the exact opposite- they opt for a greyness that doesn’t make the shifts in behavior or beats seem random or silly.+

I also mostly enjoyed those long conversations- yes, they do drag, and can get preachy (particularly at the end), but you always get a sense of humanity, like the writers were at least trying to ground the characters. Aliph herself made for a pleasant protagonist - her naivety justified from being a fish out of water and, regardless, offset by her determination and deference.

Sadly, the dialogue is where I have to begin my onslaught of narratorial criticisms, beginning with the vast majority of NPCs. Even the Ocean’s story involves Aliph traveling to different facilities, areas, and towns in order to restore the Whiteforge City power plants that loom there, and Analgesic made the decision to fill those locales with some of the kookiest personas you will ever meet in gaming. This doesn’t apply to all, but one too many of them are absolutely annoying- they act offbeat for no reason whatsoever and are completely at odds with the aforementioned realistic denizens who reside in Whiteforge. So jarring was this contrast that I was genuinely expecting some grand twist down-the-line explaining that these people were being cognitively influenced by an alien entity or poisonous gas in the air. The situation would be amusing if the script wasn’t so bad and lackluster for them; they’re loony for the sake of being loony.

Besides that, Even the Ocean just isn’t long enough to give enough depth to the characters, making their emotional surges and logic jumps somewhat abrupt at times. YMMV, but that was the case for me. Overall, the story was engaging enough for me to pursue the objectives; however, it falls far from achieving the goals its conceptors clearly envisioned.

Graphically, you got three different art galleries on display- first for the main game, second for the VN cutscenes, and third for the text speeches.

The first one is great for the most part. Analgesic was, without a doubt, striving to pay homage to SNES JRPGs, and they succeeded, though maybe were too successful. While environments are beautifully colored and contain minute details reminiscent of their pastiched counterparts, the character models look outdated: bodies are condensed, eyes unduly big, and legs literally just stubs that wiggle in a vain attempt at mimicking walking. And though they never seem aesthetically out-of-place from the backdrops, their kinetic movements betray them, giving off the sensation of floating more than ambling.

Still, I can’t get over how beautiful the individualized locations were- you’ll be going to a lot of vistas, from factories to creepy forests to even the inside of a giant starfish, and the art design and pseudo-lighting layer them all with rich, colorful flavor.

The second is good enough. Analgesic’s artisan team took a storybook approach, with such scenes rendered in a warm, post-romanticism style. There’s not many of them, but they are pleasant on the eyes nonetheless.

The third is where things run downhill. You’re only looking at the heads in these rectangles, but almost every single NPC turns ugly in them. I have a feeling that Analgesic wanted to convey verismo in the countenances, but their solution was to throw in a profuse amount of wrinkles and stress lines, leaving everyone appearing much older and uncomelier than they actually are.

Sound is the next bag, and there’s not much to speak about due to deficiencies in two of the three brackets. There’s no voice acting which, as I stated above, was a detriment to the game given its VN roots (and the fact that there are two singing portions centered around the title). Instead what you get are personalized noises for each NPC when they speak, which range from tolerable to irate mumbling.

Not much in the way of sound design either. Jumps are muted, steps differentiated by terrain but otherwise derivative, and everything else pretty stockish.

Luckily, the score is exceptionally good, thanks to strong dedication from composer Melos Han-Tani. He lives and breathes that old-school SNES flair, adorning each area with a unique tune that befits it. I’m not saying they’re all memorable, and I wasn’t a fan of the overmap theme due to it ineffectively balancing excitement and melancholy, but the majority do elicit the sweet music that came from the fourth generation’s sound chip without any of the screechiness that some nostalgic hacks input into their OSTs.

Finally, we come to the gameplay. To reiterate, Even the Ocean is one-half platformer, and so you’re going to be doing a lot of that throughout your playthrough.

To be blunt, the levels themselves are short and easy: I only had trouble with one, the ice-capped Oscar Basin, and even then I’m 90% sure the difficulty came from me trying to breeze through it rather than being patient. No, anyone with a decent grasp of platform games will be able to handle the tasks thrown your way, and it’s largely because there aren’t any unique mechanics here. The crux of Even the Ocean’s sections rests on balancing your energy: too much purple or green and you’ll zap into nonexistence. The thing is, this doesn’t affect gameplay as much as it should have- while overcharging near the breaking point technically increases your speed or jumping (depending on which you do), you’ll rarely have to do it: I can only recall three instances where I was required to. The vast majority of your time is otherwise spent doing standard platforming activities like strategically leaping, wall bouncing, launching between propellants, blocking lasers, evading ghosts, riding airstreams, and so forth. The innovativeness doesn’t even come close to what was on display during the 80s and 90s, much less today, and you can see the blatant borrowing from titles like Super Mario Bros. 2, Donkey Kong Country, and Yoshi’s Island.

And yet, for all these qualms, I’ll be danged if I didn’t have a ton of fun. Maybe it’s because I grew up with the aforementioned titles, or maybe it’s because the input/output scheme here is solid, but no matter the source I had a blast going through and completing each dungeon. Yeah, they weren’t challenging, however not every game needs to be difficult. Even the Ocean is definitely a title where you can sit down, relax, and delight in the fresh systems thrown your way, each factory centered on a specific gimmick that differentiates from its counterparts.

Unfortunately, I can’t end on a praiseworthy note as there are a number of small, yet persistently annoying problems present that all relate to quality-of-life. Even the Ocean makes some of the most dumbfounded mistakes I have ever witnessed in a contemporary video game. For starters, if you’re utilizing an Xbox 360 controller (as I was), the A button is used to bring up the menu while the bumpers or X/B are used to affirm….why? How did this make any sense in concept? It’s awkward, unnatural to literally any other game in existence, and I guarantee you you’ll never fully acclimate to the scheme (nor are you given the option to bind your own keys).

Next is the implementation of an overworld- it is wholly pointless. Those who think AAA releases are the only games with meaningless open worlds need only look at Even the Ocean to see the indie market bite the bullet. The map is full of empty space, few divergent stops that aren’t worth dropping by, and an abundance of artificial walls and obstacles that make traversal a chore. A Super Mario Galaxy 2-type interface allowing you to access other “worlds” from a single nexus in Whiteforge would’ve worked so much better.

On the topic of Whiteforge, it goes in the point-and-click adventure direction by having most of its localities and fronts available via entering one of two train stations, but that too has QOL ailments: one, the same dang observation message plays each time you enter the screen, as though the developers thought you would forget what the function of a freakin’ train was the second you left the terminal; two, the fact that there are two metros instead of one, making you have to waste time peregrinating from one to the next (I get that Analgesic wanted to showcase the socioeconomic strata in Whiteforge, but you barely spend time in the metropolis anyway, and they could’ve easily had a guard or someone on place to prevent poor people from getting off on higher-end destinations), and three, there’s NOTHING to do in the dang city. Seriously, if you go anywhere, like the library or museum, the only option you have is to talk to the custodian there or read some pamphlet. A junkyard exists for tutorial reasons, but it’s unnecessary to visit to due to how untroublesome the levels are. Seriously, almost everything about Whiteforge was stupid from the get-go: it would’ve made things much more ergonomic to simply reduce the settlement to a hub in the vein of the LEGO games.

I’m not done ranting about QOL- when you complete a factory, the game doesn’t auto-teleport you to the Mayor’s Office, meaning you gotta travel all the way back. Okay, that wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that you CANNOT DO ANYTHING ELSE until you get debriefed by the guy and start-up the next day’s events. No really, you aren’t allowed to go to another stronghold, you can’t explore the (sparse) extra dwellings on the landscape, nothing, so why not just instantly send you back?

When you talk to people, full sentences are not constructed in the speech bubble, meaning you have to finish reading part of a sentence, then click to finish out the remaining half: why couldn’t they have just enlarged the squares to display the full thought? When you are finished speaking and reignite a chat, they will literally just REPEAT the exact same message, instead of doing what most sane developers incorporate which is a short-changement with a smaller response: and for those who are inquisitive like me and like to repeat banters with NPCs in the hopes of seeing some new comment, you are not given the option to skip or backout, forcing you to relive the exchanges you JUST parsed through.

These are all little things, but their summation combined with easy-fixes culminates in an unpleasant experience.

In the end, can I recommend Even the Ocean? Look, there is a mode from the start menu that allows you to just play the levels, but I imagine doing that would result in you missing out on most of the story, which is honestly good enough to warrant experiencing in spite of its VN tropes. So, you really gotta make the decision for yourselves, guys, based on what I stated, especially with the pricing being on-point relative to playtime. There are drawbacks, but if you like platformers anchored around a narrative, you’ll probably enjoy your time with Even the Ocean.

Post-script: beating the game unlocks a final world that is actually a beta version of the game from the development stage. I wish more companies would do this as it would be cool to interact with and witness how things were before they became finalized, glitches/deficiencies and all. I personally didn’t complete it, but I’m sure others will see it as another challenge.

+For example, the Mayor comes off as your typical political sleazebag, but he slowly shows that he has a heart and has taken a liking to Aliph. Even when he turns on you at the end, it’s not for some mustache-twirling, Machivalllian reason, but because he truly cares for the preservation of Whiteforge…at least half of it anyway.

++Is anyone else surprised that Aliph doesn’t care or even think about her mom at all during the end? I mean, you have the option to visit her whenever you want in the countryside wherein Aliph will tell her she loves her, but apparently not enough to warrant even a parting thought?

This was my first Analgesic game after eyeing up their works for years and years at this point. I remember being excited for Anodyne 2 coming out despite not having the played the first. I tend so often to decide who my favourite artists or works of art are before I've even interacted with them, based on some intangible impression I can get for whatever flighty reason happens to strike me at any given moment.
So with my disclaimer to impartiality out of the way, I've set about this Easter weekend to see how much progress I can make through this series of games, starting with Even the Ocean (spoiler: I loved it. Who saw that coming).
Over an unhurried eight hours - which could be done quicker if you don't exhaust all dialogue, try all the food from supermarket, make friends with the librarian, etc - you play as Aliph, electrical engineer extraordinaire, on a journey to fix a series of energy plants for reasons and increasing stakes that I won't spoil here. The overarching plot reminded me in part of a few other things that I love, but to note that comparison here would be to invite spoilers. What a sentence for you, eh, dear reader. Words for words sake.
The interpersonal exchanges are where the writing really shines though, as the characters tackle all-too-human issues, and ground this strange, alien world for the player.
As a final thought too, I was almost expecting the "gameplay" to exist in service of the story, and play out like a walking sim with some light platforming, which is something I've no problem with if I'm enjoying the story. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find some genuinely tight and well designed puzzle-platforming sections, with a ramp up in difficulty as the game progressed.
All said, a beautiful work, and I'm off to start Anodyne now.