In Other Waters is not an easy sell. A game where you explore the vast expanse of an alien sea? Sounds awesome, right? Something like 2016's Abzu, or the Wii's Endless Ocean series would be perfect for the Switch. Imagine that sense of freedom, the spectacle of magnificent aquatic creature drifting past you in such an unknowable enormity, the underwater void.

Yeah, there's none of that here. Not really. You spend the entirety of In Other Waters looking at what amounts to a nautical map of said alien ocean, viewed through an in-universe device that displays the interface with which you control AI inhabiting a powered exoskeleton, which in turn is being worn by biologist Ellery Vas. Together you'll search this enormous abyss, in search of Dr Vas' missing partner.

Graphically, though? It's only ever this interface – a two, three colour readout of the ocean's topography with readouts showing the names of entities, obstacles and locations you find. As you explore, Ellery describes what she sees to you in text, which also displays as part of this in-universe UI. It works beautifully on the Switch in handheld mode – it feels like you are yourself holding an object expressly designed for the purpose it's serving, a brilliantly absorbing touch that draws you into the game cleverly. The effect is rather lost when played on the Switch dock with a traditional controller, but to the game's credit, it's still fun like this.

The somewhat finicky and leaden controls are actually a positive thing here – this far-from-intuitive little device you're operating must be learned. Soon enough though, taking samples of undersea life and later using them to open pathways will become second nature. Pressing L to get to the samples menu, rotating the left stick until you're in position, then pressing up and down on the Joy-Con's D-pad is definitely unusual, but it's tactile and satisfying when it clicks.

Movement is similar – everything on the map is represented by functionally abstract symbols, some of which are waypoints you can move to. The loop is, basically, hitting the B button to scan your surroundings (illuminating any wildlife, waypoints or other objects), holding the right analogue stick towards them to scan them (making them accessible), then hitting X to return to the travelling interface, angling the left stick towards the new waypoint, then hitting A to travel. Repeat effectively forever.

This sounds bad, we know. But it's not. The series of cumbersome actions contribute to the distant, alien feel of the game, creating an extremely atmospheric sensation and enhancing the thoughtful, meditative feel that In Other Waters seems to be going for. The controls will become second nature – you can toggle them on-and-off screen anytime – but the actual meat-and-potatoes movement will never feel smooth. And it's not supposed to.

As you play, you'll receive transmissions from Dr Vas, asking questions you – being an AI – can only respond to with a yes or no. She'll catalogue your findings, describing the ocean surroundings to you with effective, well-written prose; it's akin to a visual novel in some ways, but the game we find it most resembles is the brilliant mobile game Lifeline. There are barely any graphics to speak of (though the readout is far from unattractive), but the words are the real star here, creating this ethereal, unseen world in your head through clever, careful description. It's all rather wonderful.

It is a little strange, then, that there are performance hiccups when In Other Waters is played docked. It's definitely generating a lot of information for the player to discover, but when the game looks as simple as it does we were surprised at the framerate hitches and laggy movement. You could argue that this could represent the AI operating system's poor performance, but we get the impression that isn't the case. Surprisingly, we didn't notice any such problems in handheld mode. The game is best played undocked anyway, but it would be dishonest to pretend this wasn't an issue.

The beautiful electronic soundtrack by Amos Roddy draws you even further into the (lack of) action, enhancing the more dramatic beats of the slow-burn plot while providing an absorbing, chilled-out backdrop to your journey of discovery. It melds beautifully with the drip-feed storytelling and sci-fi workstation graphics to create an ambience quite unlike any other.

Conclusion

A very pleasant surprise indeed, In Other Waters is a bit of a minimalist masterpiece that you'll often want to dip into for a more contemplative experience than the majority of the Switch's library. It has found a perfect home on the handheld, the form factor of which massively works in the favour of the game's mood and atmosphere to create an exceptional and unique experience. What you're getting here is a story that you're an integral part of, and it's one of the coolest, cleverest games we've played in a long time. An absolutely first-class effort.