A few minor exceptions aside, most role-playing games have been wedded to the fantasy genre. This is no doubt due in a large part to the format's origins in the pen and paper world of Dungeons & Dragons. Whether you're smashing orcs over the head in Neverwinter Nights or defeating some ugly monstrosity with a fire spell in any of the Final Fantasy games, the setting is the same (albeit with small alterations). Rest assured that if you're playing a role-playing game (RPG), you'll be lost in a world full of mages, fantastic beasts and people who have names like Wakka.
Now, there's nothing wrong with that per se, but does it necessarily follow that if it's an RPG, it must be contained within the fantasy milieu? Can't the videogame format, with its use of hit points, item shops and leveling up, fit equally well in another, altogether different setting? Say, for example, the world of deep sea diving? That's the question posed by the good folks at Arika and Capcom, and their answer, Everblue 2, proves that you don't need to deal with fantastical elements to create an enjoyable role-playing game.
In the game, you are Leo, a world-famous scuba diver whose ship is destroyed in a violent storm, leaving you stranded on a tiny Caribbean island, bereft of equipment, boat and cash. Thankfully, you come across a small group of young local divers called the Amigos, who ask for your help in getting their meager group some small measure of fame and fortune. Towards this end you will compete against the evil SeaDross Corporation and eventually learn about a possible undersea treasure that could spell danger for everyone on the island.
As you might guess, the meat and potatoes of the game lies in the time spent under the water, a point that the developers hammer home by having the world above consist of static backgrounds and barely-animated characters. All conversation is text-based, and the soundtrack is a light, simplistic tune that repeats so often it quickly becomes grating. Under the sea, however, is a different story. Coral reefs and various aquatic species are detailed to the point of being almost photogenic. And while there is a fair amount of draw-in (while I've never been there, I question whether Caribbean waters are as cloudy as this game seems to think), I found that by and large the game succeeds in its main goal of making you feel as though you are actually beneath the waves. This is especially true when you find yourself exploring various sunken ships and other wrecks. Navigating these dark, eerie hallways, never knowing if a shark or other dangerous denizen of the deep will jump out of the shadows is, in its way, just as spooky and nail-biting an experience as in some of the best horror-based games.
At this point it should be noted that while ostensibly an RPG, EverBlue 2 has one notable omission, namely battles. There are no weapons, spells or summons to accumulate here. Nor, on the other hand, are there any random battles or overly difficult boss fights. If a shark or other dangerous creature attacks you, you have little recourse other than running away (you do get some tools to discourage such attacks later on). At first glance, it might seem as though such exclusion would go too far against the grain for the game to fall squarely in the RPG format. However, when you consider that deep sea diving itself is more about exploration and discovery than battling some immense evildoer over the fate of the world, it makes perfect sense that the developers would choose to eschew this familiar angle of play in favor of something a bit more contemplative and probing. Purists may quibble, but Everblue 2 easily shows that role-playing games need not be focused on combat in order to be successful.
However, many of the other basic and familiar RPG elements are found in Everblue 2. The deeper and longer you go underwater, the higher your HP goes. You can heal yourself by staying overnight at the local hotel. And you can buy medicine and equipment at the local shops by selling the "valuables" you discover on the bottom of the sea. If you don't need to upgrade your scuba gear or health stats, you can also give the items you come across to the folks who live in the island town. Each person has a particular interest or need and playing errand boy for him or her often helps further the plot along. The local poet, for example, needs a guillotine to become inspired (go figure), while the furniture maven will taken any and all dressers, tables, chairs, etc. you happen to come across. Eventually I found myself having more fun trying to answer folks various entreaties than solve the main riddle of the mysterious treasure.
The controls in Everblue 2, though simply laid out, do create some problems that mar the overall experience. Perhaps the biggest problem is the game's insistence on utilizing a first-person perspective. While adequate, there are moments when this setup does become problematic, usually when attempting to navigate tight corners and hallways while salvaging some old hulk. Though it may have taken away some of the immersive experience the developers were obviously shooting for, the ability to move back and forth from a third to first person perspective would have aided general navigation in the game a great deal.
Everblue 2 may not be a by-the-numbers RPG, but it shows both gamers and developers alike that the format doesn't have to solely be associated with the fantasy genre. The game is ultimately too stripped-down and simplistic to warrant a higher score; a more engaging surface world, compelling storyline and ambitious gameplay would have driven the final tally up considerably. Nevertheless, Everblue 2 succeeds at what it sets out to do—create an involving deep-sea diving simulation—and at the same time points the way toward an intriguing path where role-playing games don't necessarily involve guys with broadswords and magic powers. I look forward to the mountain-climbing RPG any day now.