Review: Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure (PS2)

Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure (PS2)
Developer: Atomic Planet
Publisher: DSI
Genre: Action
Release Date: 09/14/2008

Ba-bump-bump-baaa-bum! Ba-bump-bump-baaa-ba-bump-ba-dump-bump!
(That was the National Geographic theme, in case you couldn’t tell)

National Geographic is awesome. They do great work. You know what else is awesome? Dinosaurs! Yeah, man, dinosaurs! They were all, like, RAWR! and stuff. So National Geographic + Dinosaurs must be double-plus good, right? They did a movie (in 3D!) that got, like, 11 stars on IMDB, and you know the Internet doesn’t exaggerate, so yeah! This game is going to rock!

*ahem*

I’m sorry. Look, I tried to be positive. I did. See up there? That was real effort, not sarcasm. I genuinely tried to find something good here. To be excited about what could have been a great blood-letting dino-fight of the seas. Thrashing and bellowing, blood clouding the water as little fish gather to nibble up the scraps of what’s left of your opponent, a once fearsome predator brought low by the laws of the underwater jungle.

But no. It was not meant to be.

Instead, I present to you a review of Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure.

1. Story / Modes
Let’s start by identifying a few misnomers in the title. These are not mythical sea monsters like Nessie or the Kraken, but rather large marine reptilian predators from the dinosaur age. Also, this is not an “adventure” so much as a “swim-around-a-bit-and-get-frustrated/bored”. So, tallying up the score, we have 2/4 words that are accurate. 3/5 if you include the article “A”. Still, we’re dealing with 50%-60% accuracy in the title, which is a failing grade no matter how you look at it.

The story goes that you’re a “monster” (Sadly, without a lair or a minion named Francis) and you’re living in the sea. It’s dangerous, and gets more dangerous all the time. There’s only one way to escape this damp circle of life, if only you could figure out what it was….

No, turning the game off is not the correct answer. Quit being a smart-ass.

There’s a multiplayer mode, provided you can sucker a friend into playing, where you race against each other through different levels of the game. You can also attack and kill each other. The problem with this is that everything but the swim and bite buttons are locked, so you can’t do most of the things you’d do in game. Also, attacking your opponent has a chance to teleport you 100 meters away in a random direction. No, I don’t know why, so don’t ask.

You can also unlock concept art and movies. The art looks a lot like pictures you’ve seen in the game, and the movies often last around five seconds. Five seconds of watching something swim.

One movie lasted around ten seconds, and that was watching a large thing swim with a whole school of little things.

Oh, and one lasted close to 15 seconds and at the end you were rewarded with watching one monster snap the neck of the other.

This, by the way, is way more exciting than anything that happens in the game.

Story / Modes Rating: Bad

2. Graphics
The graphics start off surprisingly okay. I’ve gotten spoiled by next gen standards, so the graininess was a bit unsettling, but acceptable. They did a decent job of the underwater effects, with ripples and waves at the top, and shafts of light that streak down into the sea. The color of the water changes based on your depth and location, which makes sense, and the distance fades well, allowing the game to mist-in new objects.

What little you can actually see of the other creatures is nicely modeled. They move a bit stiffly, but otherwise look fine. There’s usually a nice cloud of blood when you eat something, or when someone’s wounded. The screen also starts to fade as you drown. Not that I thought drowning would be a concern when playing an underwater game, but there you go. Points for originality, I suppose.

The real problems seem to arise the more you play the game.

You get stuck on just about everything. Areas where it looks like you have enough room won’t let you through, sometimes you just have to turn around and go a different way. It gets so bad that I’ve occasionally been stuck on the surface of the water as if it were some kind of rock wall. To balance that, however, there were several times that I swam through a wall, out into the unmapped computer territory. And to top it all off, your dinosaur turtle shrinks to a quarter of his regular size when he lands on the ocean floor. A bit unsettling to see when there are giant crabs running around that once looked like food and now look like predators.

All together, it’s a tough balance between decent looks, and poor performance.

Graphics Rating: Mediocre

3. Sound
There’s not really a lot of sound to review. There’s a drippy noise when you select menus, and the sporadic scream when you or your enemy is damaged, but that’s about it. The background music sounds like something you’d expect to hear during a trip to the aquarium, so it fits in well. Nothing offensive, but nothing incredible.

Sound Rating: Decent

4. Control / Gameplay
The game starts with a basic tutorial, triggered by events around you. Press X to swim, L-R to quick turn, etc. And here’s where we start to encounter problems. As the game guides you to the first challenge portal (more on those in a minute) you pass your first enemy. Great! Time to learn to fight! Or not. More like time to die the first time the thing swims past you twice. This is actually two problems at once. First, fighting takes some getting used to (and you actually have to read the instructions. Reading, in this day and age? Preposterous!) and second, the combat system sucks.

To be fair, it’s not just the combat, but the collision detection software. Rather than have it limited to where you creature actually is, someone decided to have everything in the game exude a field of collision. It’s like they took the term “dark matter” too seriously, or went overboard with the concept that we can’t actually come into physical contact with anything due to the electromagnetic repulsion of the electrons in our body, and ran with it. Everything you do in the game, you do from a distance. Fighting, eating, even interacting with your surroundings, is all done at what looks like an in-game distance of ten feet. And if you should actually get too close to something and these “fields” overlap, then it’s like they were never even there. I can’t begin to describe how upsetting it is to try and eat a fish that is sitting right in front of your monster’s mouth. The fish just swims there, mocking your inability to feed and probably thinking up quotations for your extinction tombstone. “Here lies Thalassomedon / Couldn’t eat a fish if it swam up his gullet”

This collision problem really wrecks the whole game. There are narrow areas you need to swim through to advance that can only be entered by hitting a small, exact angle. You can’t use any special abilities if you’re too close to an object. Heck, you can’t even switch out species if you’re too close to something. And for these purposes, “something” includes the surface of the water. Having the game repeatedly tell you “Hit Triangle to switch to Henodus”, followed by “You can’t switch monsters here” makes gameplay a bit unfriendly. Doing so within the first 20 minutes of a game kind of sends the message, “We don’t really want you here, please leave.”

But of course, I didn’t take the hint.

So, back to the challenge portal. As we all know, the prehistoric underwater kingdom was littered with StarFargates which lead to other areas. Swimming through one of these brings up a challenge screen with certain tasks unlocked based on which monsters are available to you at the time. The idea is that by completing these challenges you receive fossils, especially skulls, which allow you to get other monsters, which allow you to get fossils, etc. The problem (you knew we were getting to that, didn’t you?) is that the challenges are mostly lame.

Eat ten fish! Find your way through a maze by following a trail of glowing food! Swim away and sit there for two minutes. Seriously. The challenge was to kill a bunch of piranha looking fish or not die for 120 seconds. So I swam past them all and sat the controller down. Good times, let me tell you.

Which leads us to the other fun-killing aspect of this game: randomness. The game is plagued with random malfunctions and issues. During one of my first fights a “Low Health” warning came up at the same time I died, and as my corpse floated to the surface, I got a bonus for dodging an attack. Playing as the turtle-thing, you’ll randomly land on the ground when the game decides you’re too close (distance also being somewhat whimsical) and sticks you there. It says “Double tap X to swim” but it only works after the third or fourth attempt. In fact, most of the powers are that way, preventing you from getting through the game, and sometimes even killing you. For gods sakes, even the collection of messages the game has given you is randomized. The latest entry is often in the middle of the list!

It just doesn’t work. And to top it off, at one point, the game simply gave up. I was almost finished with the game, playing through a challenge to kill five sharks. The readout showed 3/5, I killed another, still 3/5. Another and another and another, still 3/5. You can’t leave a challenge without finishing it or dying, so it was almost like the game just gave up. Like it was bored with playing and decided not to.

This is how the machines begin to rise against us. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Control / Gameplay Rating: Dreadful

5. Replayability
If I could actually finish the game, there might be some kind of replayability, but as it is, there’s nothing really here. There’s no reward for playing through a second time except to get any fossils you might have missed, but since regular gameplay all but forces you to collect them all the point is moot.

There’s the multiplayer mode, but if you really need to play a racing game that badly there are other options. Using plastic dinosaurs and your imagination, for instance.

Replayability Rating: Bad

6. Balance
Once you figure out the combat system (Thanks again Tutorial!) it’s not that hard. Holding L1 and hitting R1 when an icon turns green is not too tough. Of course, some monsters go too fast while others go too slow, so catching up with the icon can be a challenge. Over all, it becomes somewhat tedious, and given that most enemies can be avoided simply by continuing to swim in a straight line, the challenge borders on forgettable.

Compare this to the aggravation of having to find tiny crevices and small patches of breakable rock that lead to other areas and you’ve got a somewhat unstable game.

This leaves you playing the game practically chanting, “Boring, boring, boring, $&#%! Boring, boring, boring, $&#%!” Which, on the plus side, has a rhythm you can dance to.

Balance Rating: Bad

7. Originality
Here’s another game that had potential to be something. Finny The Fish 2: Blood in the Water, you know? But the glitches and snooze-worthy gameplay mucked it all up. I will throw a couple of points their way for the aforementioned drowning, which is more novel than original, but at this point, who’s counting?

Originality Rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness
I might have OCD, because collectible games do reel me in (no underwater pun intended) and this game was, almost surprisingly, no exception. I needed to grab all the fossils and beat the game if only to say that I did. I can only assume the game understood my psychosis and did it’s best to get me treatment by making sure that it became all but impossible to beat. Thanks guys!

(For those of you who suffer from Obsessive Collecting Disorder like I do, might I suggest Tasha’s Game from the fine folks at Double Fine? It contains the aptly named “Pointless Unlockables” and is some delightful platforming fun.)

Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre

9. Appeal Factor
If you’re a dinosaur fan who isn’t frustrated easily, this could be quite the find. Or perhaps you’re teaching school children a lesson on how hard life was back in the Cretaceous era and want them to experience the difficulty of having to hunt for food when your buttons don’t work. That sort of thing? Then yes. Otherwise, no.

Appeal Factor Rating: Very Bad

10. Miscellaneous
Okay, I saved this for the end. The one shining thing the game did right! I know, you thought there couldn’t be, but you’re wrong. What this game did a great job at was… *drumroll*… SCIENCE!

From start to horribly unplayable finish, Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure is awash (again, pardon the pun) in scientific knowledge. There’s even a disclaimer at the beginning of the game! Before you can get a chance to hit the start button, some text pops up informing you that not all the creatures lived together at the same time! I know, I’m using an excessive amount of exclamation points, but I’m excited. Science! Who’d have thought it? And every fossil you collect tells you something about the creature it came from. That was the highlight for me. I think the reason I became so obsessed with collecting all the fossils was to gnaw that little nugget of information from their petrified marrows.

It’s incredible that they would even think to sneak learning into what is, basically, yet another Movie Game. Did Igor teach us about Biology? No. Did Wall-E teach us about robotics? Not in the slightest. Did Iron Man teach us about infiltrating the infrastructure of the entire government so that all its defenses were dependent on one man, and interlinked so that a single virus could shut down the entire planet? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. So to see a game that actually informs while it attempts to entertain, and does it in such an innocuous form, really impresses me.

Miscellaneous Factor Rating: Great

The Scores
Story / Modes: Bad
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Decent
Control / Gameplay: Dreadful
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Bad
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Very Bad
Miscellaneous Factor: Great
FINAL SCORE: POOR GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
Buy some plastic dinosaurs and go play in the bathtub, it’ll be cheaper. Creepier, (a whole lot creepier) but cheaper. And probably more fun, too.

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