Game review: Boundless Ocean

  • Title: Boundless Ocean
  • Developer: RPGCreations
  • Platforms: Windows
  • Price: Free

An RPG by Hardi “Orchard-L” Gosal of Radical Poesis Games, Boundless Ocean is a bit like a jRPG take on What Dreams May Come. It has some great ideas, but unfortunately, it is also saddled with an execution that doesn’t quite do them justice.

Boundless Ocean’s biggest draw is in the possibilities presented by its setting. You are dead. You appear in the afterlife, and spend the game trying to return to earth. There are an admirable number of secret, hidden areas throughout the game, which plays nicely into the idea of a surreal spirit world.

Unfortunately, the afterlife is also apparently something of a grindfest. Not only are you constantly being interrupted in your exploration by repetitive random battles, but when you finally do manage to find a secret location that hasn’t been spoon-fed to you, it’s almost always inaccessible until you’ve gathered resources from (guess what?) random battles.

Combat in Boundless Ocean is ho-hum jRPG fare made unnecessarily difficult by the fact that your protagonist is the only one you get in your party. You’ll have to heal incessantly, and given your limited magic points, you can expect to waste a lot of money sleeping in inns.

Worse, battles don’t give you enough money. Your character gains only hit points and magic points by leveling up, which means that all other stats are equipment-dependent. It can take a solid half hour of grinding to get a single piece of equipment, and the improvements are only incremental. Ordinarily you can run from battles without penalty, which is nice. But of course, if you avoid grinding, you’ll simply end up getting creamed in some future, mandatory battle where you aren’t allowed to run.

Boundless Ocean has some genuinely nice sprite work, both in cut scenes and in the main game, particularly so given the limits of the game’s engine.

Boundless Ocean is heavy on puzzles. The ones in the beginning are generally quite easy, but they quickly ramp up in difficulty. Basic progression becomes something of a puzzle, as characters stop giving you clear hints about where to go next. It’s kind of nice to play an RPG that constantly challenges the player to think about how to progress.

Unfortunately, in places, Boundless Ocean simply provides too little information for the player to make the deductive leaps that the author expects the player to make. The Sphinx Puzzle, for instance. Encountered midway through the game, this puzzle demands that you trigger buttons attached to various colors and symbols in a very particular order. There are a million ways to combine the colors and symbols involved, even once you’ve determined the meaning of the symbols and the correct sequence of colors, and you aren’t given any clear way of knowing what the precise order is. It’s not on the level of, say, the cat-hair mustache, but it definitely has the feel of an unfair Adventure game puzzle.

The writing in Boundless Ocean is disappointing. A setting like this demands creative treatment, well-thought-out characters, and smart exploration of Big Ideas. Gosal relies much too heavily on cameos from major religious and historical figures without thinking through the implications of using these figures.

Buddha, for instance, appears as a weaponsmith. In real life, Buddha advocated “right livelihood” as part of the Eightfold Path, actually singling out arms dealing as the first of four occupations one should avoid because it harms living things. In-game, Buddha justifies his new occupation with a short speech about how he values life above all things, but sometimes armed conflict is inevitable. We aren’t told how Buddha came to diverge from the views he held when he was alive, and altogether it comes across as unconvincing—subversion merely for the sake of subversion (assuming the subversion was even intentional).

Adding insult to injury, the prose is stiff, and suffers from basic grammatical errors that only enhance its awkwardness. “If by any chance this letter reaches you, it can only mean one thing. I had died in combat.” Yikes.

My biggest complaint with the writing isn’t in the prose or the character choices, however, but in a stylistic choice. The protagonist of Boundless Ocean, Silhouette, is silent. This makes sense in some games because the protagonist either has no significant backstory, or has no significant character arc to play out. In those games, the protagonist is just a cipher and little else, a mask the player wears while he acts out the role the game has given him.

That isn’t the case in Boundless Ocean. When the game begins, we learn via a cut scene that Silhouette’s husband, a soldier, has died from an enemy grenade. An army car rolls up and a soldier hands Silhouette a letter her husband wrote, to be delivered to her in the event of his death. She reads, she cries, and the scene goes black. When we fade back in, we are in control of Silhouette in the afterlife. We learn that she has made a terrible mistake.

This isn’t a mystery game. Even though Boundless Ocean tastefully refrains from spelling it out for you, it’s patently obvious from the outset which mistake Silhouette has made. So the game has to find its mystery elsewhere: in exploring the environs, and in exploring the protagonist. Even though we know what’s happened, she apparently does not—and even if she did, she’s clearly dealing with her sadness in a destructive way. Having her work through her grief over the course of the game could have been a rich source of dramatic tension, but Silhouette’s muteness severely limits her character development. We learn a bit of what she thinks through NPC dialog summarizing what she supposedly just told them, but it’s a clumsy device, and not at all effective at conveying her character.

The soundtrack, by George R. Powell (a.k.a. Setu Firestorm), is competent but not outstanding. Powell went on to create some pretty impressive compositions on the Newgrounds Audio Portal after scoring this game. Perhaps he was limited by the MIDI format, but I was expecting a bit more from him here.

The Verdict: 2/5. Boundless Ocean’s unusual premise and setting are the primary draws here. However, the need for grinding and a lackluster execution detract from what should have been a great RPG.


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