Pokémon Snap meets Endless Ocean. Reef Shot is a casual exploration game where the player is tasked with taking pictures of fish, sunken ancient architecture, and listening to your colleague jabber on about things you don’t care about. Each level brings a new set of treasure to capture as the mystery of an ancient city slowly comes to life before one’s eyes. Much like one of those interactive movie experiences, Reef Shot aims to capture the picturesque experience of visual splendor, with the added effects of intimate interaction. You know, for those fans of Bioshock who just wanted to look out the window for the entire game.
Reef Shot is now available for purchase via Steam for your regional pricing.
The player takes the role of Scott, a voiceless, first-person link that does all the wet work for his colleague, Renée, who has a thing for ancient history. While diving underwater to take photographs of the aquatic wildlife, Scott comes upon some crashed fighter planes, which leads him to even more hidden artifacts to uncover. Smelling adventure, Renée urges Scott to continue his trek into various underwater locations so that they can do what any young scientific mind dreams of doing: lay claim to a world-changing discovery.
Within ten minutes of playing this game, I would have bet my house that I was playing something sponsored by The Discovery Channel. The writing of the characters, the straightforward manner of progression, and the cheesy impressions of ancient Latin American tribes reeks of some museum exhibit geared towards science fanatics—particularly young science fanatics. There’s no attempt at humor, vulgarity, romance, or any distinct personality among Scott (who does not speak once) and Renée. Everything is more presented for the sake of putting context behind the underwater expeditions, with the essence of gameplay (however much that may entail) taking the forefront of what the player should look forward to. With that said, I hope you enjoy water physics, fast-moving schools of fish, and non-distinct images of interest.
First-person. Slow movement. Camera flashes. Stars. Aside from the visual monotony of dark underwater scenery, this is what Reef Shot as a gameplay experience. Playing as Scott, one controls a slow-moving object that can turn and spin and twist in any which direction, though there isn’t much point to when every destination is marked in plain view. The comparison to Pokémon Snap wasn’t just because one takes pictures of wildlife, but also because the tracks for each stage are on a rail-like progression. While Snap doesn’t allow the player to control themselves directly, Reef Shot gives players that luxury—only it feels like less of a luxury and more of a burden when one realizes there’s nothing to explore outside of the main objective. Go to this spot, take pictures of fish, go to this spot, take a picture of some ship wreckage, go to this spot, and so on until Renée eventually tells you to surface, ending the level.
The sort of stigma surrounding “casual” games is that a lot of gamers are more allured by being challenged, and succeeding over a strenuous journey or experience. This game is not difficult by any stretch of the imagination, and the most frustrating part about it is simply looking for little pictures in a dark surrounding. Like playing an underwater version of Where’s Waldo?. This aspect of immensely-easy difficulty will likely turn off a great number of potential players, while also intensifying the sort of “Casual” feeling the game gives through its kid-friendly dialogue and writing. Interest stemming from the emotional connection of discovery and acting as the catalyst for it is what Reef Shot more accurately hopes to achieve through its mechanics.
With these expectations set, there isn’t really enough present to make Reef Shot recommendable either as a game or as a worthwhile experience. The game is fairly short, taking me just over two hours to complete the whole thing, and the content involved is too repetitive in its nature to be immersive. Change is a minimal thing that shapes itself with each level, and in terms of gameplay, only affects the way in which players take pictures. Initially, one only needs to press a button, which evolves to needing to hold the button for a certain amount of time, and so forth. The player is awarded with a grade for each picture in the form of stars, which can be used as currency for various level perks such as refilling one’s oxygen tank, finding the fish/artifacts necessary to proceed (which is a Godsend), and targeting a bonus task that, in all seriousness, is only necessary for achievement hunting. Every level will have some fish to capture pictures of, some artifacts, a lot of moving in a straight (or vertical) line, a bonus task at some point, and Renée talking one’s head off. There is very little difference to be had with each level, and aside from some occasionally diverse aesthetic differences, the gameplay is far too simple to be amazed by much outside of that.
With all that’s been vaguely put, what could make Reef Shot better? I think a higher emphasis on world-building and character development could go a long way with a game of this type. Who are Scott and Renée? Why are they friends? What do they have in common? After playing the game, I know Renée’s a studious type that’s pretty no-nonsense, but what about Scott? Alternatively, where exactly is this all taking place? Why are they there? Why not put in some sequences of them lounging in various places or talking to the people native to their environment? How about making the world that they’re currently residing in a true alternative to the underwater expeditions that should feel adventurous in comparison? With all these dives one after another with no break, the feeling wears off fairly fast, especially when the game almost tenderly guides the player along each level with arrows and travel gauges. Doing all this, without any sort of reason to care for doing so, only limits fond enjoyment to those who are really into science or atmospheric video games.
Graphics & audio
For an indie studio releasing a game in 2012, the aesthetic worth of Reef Shot is fairly impressive. While it doesn’t exceed the levels of, say, the maximum output of the Nintendo Wii, transitions are smooth and never grating to look at, providing some measure of intrigue based on underwater appeal. Again, however, I only wish there were more to look at, as areas are confined to tight spaces limited to showing, roughly, three or four types of fish per area, various ancient architecture, and lots of water. Sure, one can make the point that underwater depths shouldn’t be as titillating as a shopping mall during the holidays, but for a game that tries to win appeal through the mysteries of underwater exploration, I was expecting a little more in terms of wildlife especially. Among the qualities of this game in consideration, virtual design is by far the best, but once again lacks too much in content to be as stimulating as it wants to be.
Still, there should be praise given to such an ambitious project that wants to capture the magic of exploration through pure visual spectacle. For that, I feel the game was never altogether boring, just squandering its potential. For a sequel title, I would expect to see twice as much content as there is here, which I wouldn’t expect to be too much of a hassle after a five-year jump.
Reef Shot’s sound design is also fairly good, though I would argue the voice acting is far too cheesy to be taken seriously. The various hums and rhythms that accompanied the underwater treks were a nice touch to the mysterious ambiance present, but was limited to only peppering an already dry turkey in terms of immersion. On its own, the soundtrack is somewhat forgettable without the use of supplanting a sort of mood for a particular sequence. Every so often the music would pick up as
Renée miraculously wasn’t talking I was exploring ancient ruins, simply looking at the surroundings of my character and studying what could have been if up on the surface. It was at these times I truly believed this game had worth, that my time trying to follow fast-moving fish around the ocean with my dumb pachinko camera was entertaining me more than I would’ve expected it to. For that, I owe the soundtrack some measure of gratitude.