Publisher: DSI Games
Developer: Atomic Planet
Release Date: February 4, 2008
When I was a kid, I absolutely loved dinosaurs. I don't think I'm alone in that either, but I remember having so many different books about fossils, various dinosaur-related toys fantastical (Dino Riders anyone?) and maybe a bit more serious (fossil models), and every time a local museum was having a fossil display, I would beg to go and check it out. As I grew up, I ended up getting away from that a bit, but I still think the creatures are pretty fascinating, and these days, I find myself geeking out over any news articles that pop up. Even though Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure for the PS2 does indeed feature the equivalent of aquatic dinosaurs, it manages to take an interesting concept and turn into one of the dullest video game experiences that I've had in quite some time.
The title was developed by Atomic Planet, who don't exactly have the best track record to date. Sure, they brought us the Mega Man Anniversary Collection, but they also gave us the Top Gun PS2 title, An Arctic Tale and one of those History Channel war games. My expectations weren't exactly high going in, and yet I was still disappointed with the overall product.
Sea Monsters is part history lesson, part adventure title. Right off the bat, there's a disclaimer that says they're aware not all of these aquatic creatures existed in the same time period or could possibly be swimming around in the same body of water, which seems like a pretty lame way to open up a video game. Imagine if "Jurassic Park" had a disclaimer stating that the dinosaurs in the movie weren't real and that you can't really clone DNA out of mosquitoes trapped in amber. I'm not sure who would've gotten mad at the idea of time periods not being well represented in Sea Monsters, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to meet that group of angry nerds.
When the game starts, you only have control of one creature, a Thalassomedon, a creature from the Plesiosauria family that is probably recognizable to anyone who's ever flipped through a dinosaur book. It's a pretty decent starting creature, but the game doesn't do a great job of driving home the size of these guys — they're about 40 feet long! Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the other creatures you encounter are also large, but the visuals never made me feel like I was controlling a giant beast of the ocean. There are other creatures you can unlock along the way by collecting fossils in the playing area and completing challenges to get the necessary skulls, with each creature having a particular skill or ability that differentiates it from the rest. The Thalassomedon, for instance, has a stealth skill that you can activate by double-tapping the R2 button, which puts it on autopilot and allows it to eat smaller fish. The stealth mode ends whenever you turn too sharply, but it's a pretty lame skill that's only useful for a couple of challenges.
The idea of Sea Monsters is that you collect all of the fossils to unlock the 18 playable and unplayable monsters. The fossils are scattered about the ocean, so you're given a mini-map in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen that tells you where things are located. Purple spots mark the fossils on the mini-map, but not all fossils are going to be obtainable by just one creature. You'll need to make use of the monsters that you unlock to get a hold of certain fossils, like using the Henodus to dig up the ones halfway buried in dirt, and so on. That mechanic forces you to switch between the monsters you unlock, but the abilities that you get for each creature aren't very interesting to use, and the whole experience feels more like a chore than a game. I realize that the title is being used to teach, but it's definitely doing so at the cost of entertaining the player, and I can't see the game keeping anyone's interest for too long.
Along with the fossils, there are food supplies that you can use to replenish health and stamina, which are represented by life bars on the top left corner of the screen. Your creature can be harmed by swimming too far down into the ocean, going out of its depth, or being attacked by other creatures. There's also an air bar to keep an eye on, and you'll occasionally need to rise to the surface to refill it. On the mini-map, you'll also see dots to represent threats, and every so often, you'll swim too close to something and make it angry, which will cause it to chase you around for a bit. Even these "encounters" are dull, and you can easily keep swimming and not stop to avoid the majority of damage. There are some quick turn options using the d-pad instead of the analog stick, but they're not necessary. I also couldn't ever figure out if I could fight back, so I always ran away, but I chalk that up to the tutorial's shoddy job in acclimating you to the controls.
Sea Monsters uses a series of tips in the beginning to give you an idea of purpose and what the buttons do, but the tips aren't that great at being context sensitive. I often felt like I was supposed to sit still while the game texted me because if I started to move too far ahead, I'd end up missing different things, and I'd have to constantly refer to the logs to see what I was missing out on or how to perform certain moves. For instance, challenges are little portals that lead to mini-game-like events, and the first challenge that I encountered involved using the Thalassomedon to eat 12 fish. When I hit the challenge area, I never got a tip telling me which button to press to eat things, how to enter stealth mode, or that even needed to enter a stealth mode. Sure, that's information contained in the instruction book, but I think it's a good idea to expect a game that already gives you hints in the beginning to go all the way with those hints and tips to let you know the basic mechanics in the area you've just entered. It's just a particular frustration that comes to mind, amid a host of other issues that plague the title.
In conclusion, the controls in Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure aren't precise, everything feels sluggish, the visuals are foggy and the detail is nonexistent. At least the music has a certain charming, soothing appeal to it that I'd expect to find in an aquatic exploration title, but that's about the only highlight of the entire experience. Otherwise, Sea Monsters is one of the worst PS2 titles I've ever played, and it's not something I'd suggest to anyone. Even for someone who enjoys the idea of fossils, history and dinosaurs, the whole experience is absolutely mundane and boring.