After Cosmonaut Games' "spot the difference" WiiWare debut, 5 Spots Party, you might not have expected anything exciting to come from them. But after some hands-on time with their latest effort, Dive: The Medes Island Secret, we think that opinion may change.
We were lucky enough to get to play a pre-release build of the game which, despite a rather slick appearance, is a decidedly retro affair. The developers recently compared it to Metroid, and rightly so since exploration is the main focus of the game. Thematically it reminds us of the old Atari 2600 game Aquaventure with gameplay that's strongly reminiscent of Sega's 16-bit classic Ecco the Dolphin.
After a text-based introduction to a story about the Medes Islands off the coast of Catalonia, players are dropped straight into the water and tasked with finding a sunken treasure located near the tomb of Martin of Aragon, a 15th century Spanish king. Using your Wii Remote you manoeuvre your diver past dangerous wildlife through underwater caves in a quest for riches.
The control is primarily via the pointer on the Wii Remote, which proves an excellent choice: simply move the on-screen reticule around your diver to change facing, holding the B button to swim in that direction. Your oxygen tank gauge acts like a life bar and will slowly decrease on its own over time, but a quick burst of speed (achieved by double-clicking your "swim button") or colliding with dangerous wildlife will reduce it more quickly.
Whilst strategic speed bursts and your diver's naturally nimble swimming will get you around the more passive obstacles like drifting jellies or sessile anemones and urchins, some sea life is rather aggressive, like sharks and oversized lionfish – amongst other dangerous animals – which will actively pursue you if you get to close. Thankfully you have a speargun to dispatch them – don't worry virtual animal lovers, it only fires "tranquilisers," so when they flip over and disappear it's only because they've gone off to take a nap! Don't think you can blast your way through your seaquest, however, as your speargun only comes stocked with five knockout darts.
Aiding you further is an underwater torch you can use to illuminate dark areas. In some cases this is required simply to allow the player to see their surroundings, but it also makes the bonus treasures (referred to as "relics") scattered about show up on your radar at a greater distance. The little circle in the upper left corner of the screen will also tell you when bonus items like extra oxygen and tranquiliser spears are nearby, with the direction of your main goal being indicated by a yellow star at all times. The area you're exploring is rather large, so it would be easy to get lost; thankfully you have a map to call up at any time to reveal those areas you've already explored and indicate your present location and any checkpoints you've discovered. Treasures and relics will not be shown on the map, but combined with the radar showing you the general direction from your current position you should be able to find them – provided you have the right gear and are ready to do some exploring.
Though the Medes Islands feature in the title you'll actually be traveling to ten different tropical islands around the world in search of buried treasures that are somehow linked to what you find at the Ille de Medes. You can use money gained from finding treasures to upgrade your gear topside, which is essential as your adventure takes you deeper beneath the waves. This also enables you to return to earlier islands and dive deeper to find more relics, with the number found being tracked in the island select screen.
Although there are hazards, the tone and atmosphere of Dive is rather relaxed thanks to both the pace of swimming and the soothing background music, lending the impression of a 2D version of Endless Ocean. Given the quality of the visuals, it's nice that the pacing allows players the chance to appreciate them. Animals are realistically animated and there's excellent use of perspective in foreground and background art which features nice details like corals and sponges. Using a combination of subtle water ripple effects and light dappling on background objects, it's almost like controlling a figure in a virtual aquarium and clearly shows a lot of work has gone into the game's presentation.
Players that like games built around exploration or who are looking for a more relaxing gaming experience will get a lot out of it. We're looking forward to the release of Dive: The Medes Island Secret and understand we may not have long to wait, so it's probably time to get that scuba certification and get ready to take the plunge!