Publisher: Sierra Online
Developer: Sierra Online
Release Date: June 18, 2008
Given the Xbox 360's penchant for guns and boys' toys in their games, Xbox Live Arcade sometimes feels like the console's sanctuary to unwind without needing to create an exit wound. Sea Life Safari thrives on this idea and produces a quality family-friendly title that provides a relaxing break from the muzzle flare for grown-ups and an entertaining challenge for children. Its child friendliness and devilish innovation is hardly surprising when you consider that it borrows (I'm being generous; it's wholesale theft) its concept from the N64 classic Pokémon Snap, but given Nintendo seem to be refusing to renew the franchise for the DS where it would be a perfect match, Sea Life Safari is the next best thing. At an 800-point asking price, you can't really argue with the finished product.
For anyone who managed to miss out on the joy of Pokémon Snap, you were treated to the original task of photographing Pokémon in the wild while you're on rails, to create more of a challenge; if you miss the monster as it goes past, you'll have to go again. You had to snap the creatures doing something interesting, which you could provoke by lobbing a device at them. You were then awarded points based on a series of criteria, including the focus of the shot, the centering, and the general novelty of the image (i.e, a dancing Pikachu is worth a lot more than a dull, sullen one).
Now if you replace the words "dancing Pikachu" with "ink-squirting squid," you could use that sentence verbatim to describe what goes on in Sea Life Safari, except the latter simplifies the process somewhat to further appeal to younger audiences. Pictures are rated out of three stars, and you are not rewarded for getting multiple fish in shot (this sometimes confuses the game and can be a little frustrating if it assumes you were aiming at another fish). You then get your photos rated by a senile old sailor who often seems to have questionable taste, and if you amass enough points, you can unlock another area to explore, of which there are five in total.
To add to the longevity somewhat, you can also hunt for 10 golden shells in each level and find two "special shots" in each level, which only appear after you have played each one three times. This may sound like a mean attempt to extend the game, and it possibly is, but to get enough points to unlock a new map in my experience, you will need to explore each level at least three times anyway (unless you're some kind of photography behemoth), so it actually creates a nice sense of variety in what would otherwise be (even more) repetitive.
Variety and longevity is where Sea Life Safari stumbles, though, because beyond the five levels, there isn't much to speak of. You can save photos to your hard drive if you're particularly proud of them, though there's no option to share them with others, so it feels like a missed opportunity. Indeed what would have been really nice would be to use them in your Xbox dashboard as gamer pics or themes, but I guess that would be a little too much to hope for. It's a shame because the visuals and general production values here are far greater than most XBLA games.
Indeed, the stills of Sea Life Safari don't really do the title justice, which is a bit weird when you consider that the whole object of the game is to take "still photographs." When it's in motion, it's beautifully animated and gives a feeling of dreamy tranquility. It's cartoony but not distractingly so, and although I would have preferred a high-definition version of Endless Ocean in terms of the game's looks, you can't really argue with the effort that's been lavished on the graphics, which go beyond the call of duty for an XBLA title.
The backdrops too are colorful and dazzling, with plenty of detail and variety. From the inside of a shipwreck to a coral reef and beyond, each level feels unique and is a pleasure to play through once unlocked. The beauty of the game is marred slightly by the sporadic jerkiness of the on-rails movement, which is a really odd bug for the game to have since the path you take is entirely pre-determined. Regardless, a smoothness patch would be a great addition and would make Sea Life Safari significantly more immersive — as immersive as having your photography of cartoon fish critiqued by a wannabe Gorton's Fisherman (or Captain Birdseye) can be, anyway.
The sound is minimalist, but that suits the game to a T. Your aural backdrop is the bubbly calm of breathing apparatus punctuated by the click of the camera, and it works like a charm. It's not going to win any awards, but personally I think resisting the temptation to add music was an inspired choice and gives you a feeling of being at one with the sea life.
There will be lots of Xbox 360 gamers who will be bored with Sea Life Safari within five minutes, but then the game was never aimed at them. If the premise of taking photos of fish on rails sounds good to you, then you won't be disappointed — and if it doesn't, then move along because there's nothing to see here. Ironically for a game set in the ocean, Sea Life Safari's biggest problem is its lack of depth. It's charming, entertaining and a dreamy way to spend an evening, but once you've played through all of the levels (easily doable in an afternoon for the determined), you won't have much cause to put on that wet suit again. Indeed, it's exposed the potential for a properly realized hi-definition Endless Ocean clone without the restraints of the rails and with realistic sea life. Still, for 800 points, it remains a worthwhile diversion, and if you have children with a penchant for fish, you can pump up the score to a "10" for the amount of fun-family mileage you can get from this neat aquatic package.
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