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Endless Ocean: Luminous review: chill underwater adventure runs out of air

A diver swims in Endless Ocean: Luminous.
Endless Ocean: Luminous
MSRP $50.00
“As far as franchise revivals go, Endless Ocean: Luminous doesn't put its best fin forward.”
  • Chill exploration
  • Tons of fish to scan
  • Collaborative multiplayer
  • Repetitive gameplay loop
  • Poor story missions
  • Inconsistent sound and visuals

In Endless Ocean: Luminous, the sea is an ever-changing natural wonder filled with aquatic mysteries. Actually uncovering those secrets, though, isn’t quite as awe-inspiring.

Nintendo is getting creative to fill out what’s likely to be the Switch’s last full-year lineup, and its latest exclusive is a surprise revival of developer Arika’s ocean exploration series from the Wii era. The series contains a laid-back conceit that seems more well suited to a modern generation of gamers who embrace “cozy games.” It’s simply a relaxing diving experience about cataloging thousands of fish and hunting for salvage. It’s an elegant concept, but one that isn’t friendly to a gaming world that measures value by the amount of “content” included in a game. To modernize an old series, Arika would need to keep players coming back — and that’s where this particular dive runs out of air.

Endless Ocean: Luminous’ calming ocean exploration and lovely multiplayer components wear thin due to slow progression hooks that turn every aspect of it into a long chore. With tons of features from previous installments missing, anyone who wants to see its miniscule story to its end will need to tread a lot of water to find the pearls.

The luminous world

Endless Ocean: Luminous is an ocean exploration adventure with the energy of an educational game. It shares some DNA with 1990s school computer staples like Odell Down Under. And while there are some gamey hooks and modern approaches to progression, it’s more about teaching players facts about nearly 600 fish (including a few extinct and invented critters). If you’re not feeling the call to the sea based on that, stay on dry land.

Divers swim near a large creature in Endless Ocean: Luminous.

Those who do click with that, though, will find a pleasant exploration hook that can be inviting early on. The bulk of the experience is spent going on “dives” in a handful of randomly shuffled underwater biomes. When I jump into my first dive, I’m tossed into a map with some stone ruins at its center. I explore that over the course of a few dives before generating a new grid, this time an arctic area filled with previously unseen critters like narwhals. It’s a neat trick to freshen up exploration each dive, though I’ve found myself in that same icy area three times already.

The gameplay loop of a dive is sparse, but enjoyably laid-back. As I smoothly swim around, tilting the camera down to dive and pressing the right bumper to rise, I can scan fish by holding the left bumper. Every time I log a new species, I get a brief description that includes a genuinely insightful fact about it. With nearly 600 fish in the game (including prehistoric beasts), I’m able to get an informative snapshot of undersea life. Where else would I have learned about the tasselled wobbegong?

If you’re going to play, the surprisingly stable online experience is absolutely the best way to go/

While that’s the main hook, there’s just a bit more to do in dives. I can pick up shining salvage to earn currency that can be spent on cosmetic items. There are 99 “mysteries” to discover, which can be found by picking up loot, finding tablets filled with lore, solving light riddles that require me to bring a specific fish to a stone platform, and more. Each map features its own UML (unique marine life), which lets Arika invent its own creative critters. Budding photographers can even snap pics of fish. It’s not a lot of depth, and dives still mostly have me swimming in circles while hammering my boost button to speed up, but those who feel deeply invested have enough to do.

And all of that is significantly more fun online. Players can join shared dives that put up to 30 players on one map. Exploration becomes a collaboration, as all divers’ progress is shared. What might take four hours of slow plodding on one’s own can be done in under an hour when players are pinging loot for one another, uncovering the map, and working together to track down the UML by finding and scanning certain creatures. If you’re going to play, the surprisingly stable online experience is absolutely the best way to go. Otherwise, you’re in for a tedious time.

Underwater grind

While the core idea is admirable, Luminous loses its luster due to frustrating pacing that drags out its progression. The real gameplay flow revolves around a weak and poorly integrated story mode. Here, players jump into a series of short missions that tutorialize features and tease out some wider lore around the adventure’s oceans, which are built around a mythical coral formation. There’s a light climate activism theme as players work to restore light to the coral by scanning fish, but the tiny missions underwhelm. Each only lasts a few short minutes and sometimes just have me reading a bit of dialogue.

To stretch that out, Luminous locks new missions behind repetitive goals completed in dives. The majority of missions need to be unlocked by scanning thousands of fish. An entire school can be scanned at once by holding the left bumper, but some of the requirements still took me one or two hours minimum between underwhelming missions (by the time I unlocked a mission that taught me how to use the camera, I already had an album full of snaps). It’s grueling, turning the relaxing pace into a dull chore.

Luminous is the equivalent of a commercial fishing boat.

The random selection of dive sites adds even more artificial length. If I want to discover every ULM, something that needs to be done to find every mystery and reach the end of the story, I need to keep loading up new maps and hope I enter one with a creature I’ve never seen before. It feels like there’s less than an hour of actual story content here, but it’s stretched over 20 or more hours depending on the luck of the draw.

That grind isn’t just present in story unlock conditions. If I want to buy new color palettes for my suit, stickers, or emotes, I need to collect a whole lot of currency from dives. An hour of exploring can net me enough to buy some cheap items, but a large chunk of them require a lot more time. It’s great that there’s such a huge amount of stuff to collect, allowing me to give my suit some personality, but even unlocking a single sticker can require me to scan fish for hours. And that loop gets old once I’m not finding new species as frequently.

A diver swims near a white fish in Endless Ocean: Luminous.

What’s disappointing about all of this is that Luminous wipes out a lot of the more engaging hooks and experiments of previous games like Endless Ocean 2: Adventures of the Deep in favor of repetition. You can’t feed, pet, or poke fish. There aren’t tools like pulsars and whistles. The customizable private reef and aquarium are gone. The story, mostly devoid of human characters, is a major step down in presentation. There are no sidequests or special requests. Even the swimming has been slimmed down, with options like autoswim removed. With the multifaceted gameplay of previous installments gone, Luminous is the equivalent of a commercial fishing boat. I’m just there to scan thousands of fish and clock out.

I’ve noticed the same artificial content padding in several first-party Nintendo Switch games in recent months. This year’s Mario vs. Donkey Kong remake only gives players access to puzzle time trials after they’ve cleared a stage, forcing completionists to replay the entire game again just to set scores. After completing Princess Peach: Showtime!, players are told they have to redo every level to find some newly hidden critters in them. Both examples double the playtime needed to see it all without adding anything new. It’s a tedious content remix strategy that tries to hide both games’ lean runtimes. Endless Ocean: Luminous has the same problem on a much grander scale. I can’t help but feel like that’s an intentional move to make sure Switch owners stay occupied during a slower release year as Nintendo preps for its next console’s launch.

Natural meets artificial

Though I imagine Endless Ocean: Luminous will find a dedicated audience, its opening moments might send potential divers back to the surface. When I first jump in, I’m immediately dropped into its first story mission: a quick movement tutorial. It’s there where I’m hit with some jarring artistic choices that make the project look like a lower effort than it really is. Chief among those is the AI assistant who guides me. It’s a machine voice that reads text out loud like a GPS bot. Whenever it hits a comma, it pauses for an awkwardly long time before continuing the sentence. It’s an awkward, corner-cutting choice even if it’s one that’s contextualized in the story.

There are some accessibility benefits that come with that. The AI voice reads every fish fact outloud, which essentially makes it a text-to-speech screen reader. It’s a fine use of the tech compared to more egregious generative uses that we’ve seen recently. Still, it’s a jarring decision that instantly takes something out of the adventure’s power. The lifeless delivery of every spoken line feels at odds with the vibrant natural world.

The Nintendo Switch just isn’t capable enough to deliver the best version of a project like this.

Inconsistent visuals have the same effect. Arika puts its effort in the right place, creating hundreds of photogenic fish models that capture their real-world counterparts. Nothing else is quite as awe-inspiring. Diver models are low-quality, biomes can feel sparse at times, and I can only see a few feet in front of me at any given time. Some soothing musical compositions keep a sense of wonder while exploring, but I’m left feeling like the Nintendo Switch just isn’t capable enough to deliver the best version of a project like this.

I’m thrilled to see such a niche franchise like Endless Ocean return in 2024. It leaves me hopeful that Nintendo might be more willing to experiment with long-dormant IP thanks to a huge Switch install base that’s raised the bar for every series that’s graced the console. Luminous just doesn’t feel like it’ll do much to dredge the series up from its cult status. Its collaborative online features are a small revelation, but the monotonous grind makes me wonder if the series really stands a chance with more demanding, content-hungry gamers. The chill series just wasn’t built to scale up this way and I can feel the concept stretched to its limits.

Divers greet one another in Endless Ocean: Luminous.

Thankfully, it’s a wide ocean out there. The audience for games are wider and their tastes more diverse. Endless Ocean doesn’t need to attract massive whales who need to gobble up hundreds of hours of gameplay to get their fill. Maybe it can just be a little something for all the shrimp out there.

Endless Ocean: Luminous was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch OLED in handheld mode and on a TCL 6-Series R635 when docked.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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