A relaxed simulation of a life consisting primarily of freewheeling and managing a sushi restaurant. What more could you ask for?
Now, it would be unfair to give Stardew Valley all the credit for kickstarting the modern "lifesim" genre, but we can say, in part, that it was the launch of this game, the critical acclaim in the press and the high sales figures that reminded consumers, and most importantly developers, that there was a scam in creating this kind of experience.
Dave the Diver is not Stardew Valley, and indeed many of the mechanics and structures are fundamentally different, but the feeling of managing a life, managing a business, is the same, and there is almost no other game, except possibly Kynseed, that comes close to emulating that quality.
In Dave the Diver, you are... well, you are Dave - the Diver. You're a free diver, a spearfisherman who suddenly gets the opportunity to take over a dilapidated sushi restaurant on the edge of a local attraction called "The Blue Hole", a lagoon where the layout and the endemic flora and fauna change every day. Now, by catching valuable fish and serving them as freshly made sushi in the evening, Dave must lift this restaurant and help the locals with a variety of tasks, including perhaps discovering a secret civilisation at the bottom of the ocean.
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The story is simple, relatable and humorous, and since there's no voice acting, you might find yourself hitting the X button a little too often without really reading along. I will say, however, that the folks at the studio MINTROCKET have really managed to utilise sarcasm, self-awareness and irony to create some pretty great moments. There are a surprising number of proprietary, unique scenes, and they're all filled with creative joy, so there's enough narrative ground to want to continue with the main story for that reason alone.
Like so many other games in the same genre, Dave the Diver simulates a day. You have the opportunity to dive twice each day, and each evening you have to present a menu and serve your catch to hopefully enthusiastic guests. It's all seen in pixelated, colourful graphics, and it's the colour that makes all the difference. Dave the Diver is a pretty neat game to look at most of the time. Although The Blue Hole changes a little each time, it's not nearly as distinctive as MINTROCKET would like to make it sound, and especially as you get deeper into the depths there seem to be fixed sizes, as if the building blocks used to create the layout are a little too big and a little too easy to recognise.
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Fishing with a speargun is relatively simple, you aim, fire, and although it often takes several hits to reel in the fish, you'll rarely run into trouble. However, you can choose to try and dance with heavier opponents, like a myriad of shark species. Of course, calling it all "relatively simple" is an understatement, because underwater you're also mixing up the resources at your disposal. Weapon Caches, O2 canisters and other tools are scattered around the bottom, all helping you to progress, harvest different foods or defend yourself.
Each night, Dave the Diver transforms into a Diner Dash, where you must hire employees to keep the restaurant running efficiently. But no matter how many you hire, you'll have to lead by example by pouring green tea and beer, making sure there's enough grated wasabi root for the upcoming dishes and cleaning up after your guests. It all adds up to 2-3 intense minutes of service that hardly ever gets boring. In addition, you set the menu and can upgrade individual dishes over time, you can design the restaurant's decor yourself - there's quite a lot of freedom, and Dave the Diver pretty much just keeps pointing opportunities at you as the game's something like 25-30 hours progresses.
In fact, it's through side missions that you often gain access to some pretty crucial progression. I helped a girl catch a particular species of octopus and in doing so opened up a rather heartbreaking story about her late father, I was given the opportunity to use fishing nets to catch much smaller species underwater, and a whole new side area in the depths was opened up. All this through a single side mission! This happens several times in Dave the Diver, where the developer has taken a hugely satisfying "more is more" stance, showering the player with designed, curated content just when you thought it was running out of fresh new ideas.
I wouldn't say that Dave the Diver is the most complex simulation I've ever seen, far from it, and towards the end you might start to get a bit bored of having to complete your dives, just as harvesting your near-industrial fields in Stardew Valley ultimately became a day you kind of dreaded.
But Dave the Diver knows from the very first scene what it wants to be, and from the get-go it's firing on all its available cylinders. You get a fantastically complex gaming experience here, with a self-awareness that would suit many major studios.
9 / 10
Fishing is thrilling. Diner Dash-like restaurant mechanics are consistently fun. Knows what it wants to be and achieves that without faltering.
Can get repetitive at times. Level design becomes a bit predictable.