In past video game lives I've been a food truck burger flipper, ramen restaurant manager, and waiter on a spaceship, and now I'm putting on my sushi chef hat for Dave the Diver, an immaculately polished gem that first began life in Early Access where you plunder the deep seas and sling exotic fish for adventurous diners.
Within an hour of booting up Dave the Diver, I was struck by how much is going on in this surprisingly ambitious indie, and how thoughtfully it's all been incorporated. It's a deep-sea action-exploration game moonlighting as a restaurant management sim. At first I worried those very different gameplay experiences would clash, but instead they swim together like a pod of dolphins, making each other more meaningful and rewarding.
A reel catch
When it first released, it was one of the least 'early accessy' Early Access games I've ever played. If there were bugs in my several hours playing the game, I didn't notice them. Its dialogue is tight, hilarious, and relevant, with a topical message advocating for climate awareness and ecological conservation.
Dave the Diver is feature-packed too, gently introducing a surprising amount of new features over the course of its first couple of hours. And wouldn't you know it; they're all incredibly well-implemented, from the phone that comes with as many apps as I have on my real-life phone - there's even one that lets you play mini-games - to the assortment of gear and weapons you can use to curate your sushi restaurant's menu.
Dave is a retired deep-sea diver recruited to help catch exotic fish from the 'Blue Hole', a mysterious ecosystem harboring aquatic species from all over the world. Dave's job is two-fold: he needs to catch and serve it to customers at a sushi restaurant, and in return, he gets to eat for free. At the beginning, this seems like an agreeable arrangement for both parties involved, but as the restaurant owner and other colorful characters' demands become increasingly unreasonable and dangerous, it's clear that poor ol' Dave got a raw deal. He later gets roped into some business around an ancient underwater civilization, but that's by the by.
To start, you're given some novice diving gear and asked to skim the reefs just below the water's surface for tropical fish to be served in lieu of less sustainable, but more traditional offerings like tuna and salmon. Though, it's a bit jarring when the game that asks you to be mindful of protecting vulnerable ocean species gives you a literal shotgun to obliterate fish with. Seriously, the actual act of knifing, spearing, and shooting fish is weirdly violent, but I suppose there's no point sugarcoating the dirty work.
Oh, and you'll thank the game for giving you those tools later on, when you're eventually tasked with hunting down a freakin' shark so that you can serve its head to a snooty customer. Naturally, the shark is rather keen on keeping its head, and it'll make short work of you and your little toys if you aren't careful.
Sharks aren't the only scary thing that lurks deep in the ocean trenches - I nearly wet my wetsuit when my peaceful exploring was interrupted by the floor-rumbling power of a massive squid, whose menacing eye took up a considerable share of the screen. If you're at all thalassophobic, take this as a distressing content warning.
In these times, Dave the Diver's otherwise serene underwater scenes quickly become surprisingly tense. You'll also need to keep an eye on your oxygen levels - if you run out, the screen blacks out and you're given the chance to keep only one fish or item you collected during your dive. And since you're only allowed two dives per day, those precious resources can be sparse.
Diver by day, sushi slinger by night
Your first task as the overburdened Dave the diver/shark hunter-turned waiter is to draw up the menu for the night, which of course will be based on the ingredients you managed to source in previous dives. When you're ready, the restaurant will open and for a few minutes, you'll bring various dishes from the chef to customers while making sure their cups of green tea are always filled. It's busy and just enough to keep you occupied with the task, but it's rarely ever stressful. Plus, you eventually get to hire staffers to help tend to customers, and that makes these segments even more manageable.
With money you earn from slinging sushi, you can upgrade your restaurant with new equipment and decorations, expand your inventory, and buy new diving gear to dive deeper and take on bigger fish. As you go, more and more gameplay elements open up, and there's a feature that unlocks further down the line that makes finding specific fish for your menu significantly less of a timesink. I won't spoil anything, but investing time in completing Dave the Diver's main and sub-quests always pays dividends in other areas of the game.
The restaurant scenes also help you progress by building you a platform and ranking up via the 'Cooksta' app, which in-turn unlocks new recipes to cook for your progressively demanding clientele. Again, I love the way Dave the Diver consistently rewards you for tending to its various systems by adding depth to other areas of the game.
Well crap, I'm nearing the end of my word limit and I've barely touched on the presentation, but that's by no means an indication that the visuals aren't worthy of their own dang article - just the opposite, in fact. Day and night, interior and exterior scenes, the pixel art in Dave the Diver is elegant, dynamic, and often-times genuinely jaw-dropping. There aren't a whole lot of environments, but the ones that are just so darn inviting and atmospheric that I could just live in them.
Dave the Diver officially released on June 28. But even before its full launch, the amount on offer already belied its technically 'in development' status. I could go on for days about how it tethers its heady message to funny, approachable characters, or how its gameplay loop continues to peel back new layers for hours on end, or even how its little factoids on loading screens are educational. But you'll just have to dive right in for yourself.