Don’t ask me what kind of game Dave the Diver is. It’s too hard a question and I won’t answer it. It’d be faster to compile a neat menu of all the genres not packed inside in the whale-sized genre sprawl that is studio MINTROCKET‘s debut title.
Of course, obstinately refusing to describe a game is a pretty shifty way of opening a video game review, so I suppose I’ll buckle to convention and give it a shot.
Dave the Diver‘s core gameplay is hard to pen in — it doesn’t nearly resemble anything else I’ve played. Taking a stab at it, I’d loosely describe it as a sort of roguelite-metroidvania hybrid. Dave (that’s you!) is a recently-arrived deep sea diver tasked with supplying the local upstart sushi restaurant with a steady stream of fresh fish. It’s convenient that the restaurant abuts the Blue Hole, an underwater wonder defying our understanding of both geography and physics; the Hole changes its layout daily, guaranteeing a constant and evolving supply of seafood and other exploitable marine resources. While the Blue Hole is teeming with sea life ready to be filleted and served, Dave’ll have to be careful to keep an eye on his oxygen supply and to steer clear of marine predators; running out of air or succumbing to attack means losing his catch and disappointing the world’s most up-and-comingest sushi chef.
The Blue Hole is massive, but only some of its territory is immediately accessible to Dave, whose equipment lags behind his ambition. Across dives, he’ll have to complete missions and invest his hard-earned fishing money to upgrade his gear and abilities.
It’s the source of those finances that brings us to our first genre snag. At the end of each day, Dave retires, not to his beachside apartment, but to Bancho’s Sushi, where he moonlights as manager. He’s not responsible for the food — Bancho, the restaurant’s mysterious, somewhat taciturn chef, has that covered. But hiring staff, determining the menu, and covering service needs all fall under Dave’s expanding portfolio.
Here, the game gives us a break from the fish wrangling, putting down the harpoon and setting aside its side-scrolling, dungeon explorer format to itself moonlight as a restaurant management sim, a Bancho’s Sushi Tycoon. Gone is the primal fear driving Dave to avoid becoming shark bait; here for the night is the just-as-tense terror of modern service work.
The first few days see Dave alternating between morning dives and evenings spent providing bar service at Bancho’s. But once we’re settled in, the floor falls out from under us and the game gives way to a deluge of genre experimentation. The introduction of fish and crop farms evokes a sort of a poor man’s Stardew Valley. Minigames added to Dave’s phone let us spend our breaks between dives taking care of Tamagotchi-esque virtual pets and getting caught up in an anime idol-themed autorunner. Regular nights at the restaurant bleed unexpectedly into a rhythm game segment and a food-prep minigame evoking Cooking Mama. Later story goals require Dave to embark on a stealth mission and join an ally on a quest that plays more similarly to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons than the game I’d been playing up until then.
In all, Dave‘s genre stew is a lot for one (new) studio to dish. Written out here, I realize it sounds intimidating, or worse, like the game wants nothing more than to be a jack of all trades and master of none.
To be fair, most of the game’s genre-bending is temporary. The rhythm game happens exactly once, as does the stealth segment, and unless you’re an achievement collector, the mobile-style minigames are completely optional.
Boiled down and definned, Dave the Diver is a metroidvania seasoned in roguelite salt and served alongside a modest management sim. What makes its smaller appetizers and garnishes so important is that they’re an aquarium window into the process that makes Dave the Diver so compelling: this is a game that could lean into the grind and have no trouble finding an audience. Luckily, it doesn’t. The main gameplay loop is catching fish and serving them at the restaurant, but the game’s pacing is fast enough that only once or twice did I really feel the weight of repetition. Sure, in going down to look for fish I’m doing the same thing I did yesterday, but this time I’m also looking for evidence of a lost undersea civilization. Tomorrow I’ll be searching for a new FishMon. And after that I’ll be testing my mettle against a giant hermit crab who’s repurposed a dump truck for use as a(n admittedly effective) shell.
And then, once I’ve emerged from my two daily dives, I’ll do the same thing I did yesterday, waddle into Bancho’s Sushi, set the daily menu, and preside over the evening rush. Today might be business as usual. Or it could be the day a famous TV chef enters, gauntlet cast before him, to challenge Bancho in his own dojo. Or maybe a well-known rapper will show up and introduce me to a song that fills the now-permanent “L to the OG“-sized niche in my cerebral gyri.
From beginning to end, Dave the Diver feels like an exhausting list of experiments gone right, a style of game that feels familiar to anyone hopping off of the latest cozy game craze while also being something entirely new, an experience not quite like any other game I’ve played.
What’s more, or maybe most, Dave‘s pacing perfection isn’t only evidenced in the rate at which it introduces new story twists and minigames. As much as I enjoyed the game and was ready for it to develop a months-wide fingerprint on my life, it didn’t threaten to overstay its welcome. This game dominated my playtime for all of two weeks, but then it let me go.
Dave the Diver is a great game and the biggest surprise I’ve lucked into so far this year. Like Stardew Valley in the early months of 2016, it felt like it came from nowhere only to completely envelop my life for weeks afterward. (I recognize this is a luxury; both Dave and Stardew had been in public development for years. I’d just managed to stay aloof of both until the months of their releases.)
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Dave and his merry crew of friends, allies, and employees. That acknowledged, the game does come with its share of hiccups, and I suppose it’s only fair I acknowledge them.
First, a little blame on me. Enjoying this game as much as I did and a little surprised by its comparatively quick runtime (a casual player might take months to finish the main story, but a more dedicated diver can easily do it over a week or two), I challenged myself to to earn each of the game’s forty-three achievements.
Achievement hunting prolonged my stay with Dave and crew, but it also familiarized me with the workings of the game in a way that kind of detracted from it, like seeing headless Mickey Mouse backstage at Disney World.
The experience of diving in search of fish and other treasures in Dave is fun, but past the first couple of in-game weeks, the relative same-iness of the Blue Hole’s supposedly miraculous shifting starts to dig in. The Hole’s day-to-day differences are limited, and eventually the idea of trying to pass through the requisite maze between regions made it less worth it. No longer was I interested in maximizing the efficiency of my dives. Maybe that’s a good thing, a necessary dose of medicine to fix my shriveled min-maxer’s heart. But at the same time, when moving forward in the sushi restaurant encourages ingredient diversity, feeling less and less interested in staying submerged long enough to properly chase that diversity creates a clog in the game’s pipeline where one of the two halves seems to suffer at the expense of the other.
The devs in their wisdom seem to have noticed this, or at least a problem adjacent to it, and made an effort to ameliorate it by introducing the fish farm, an area unlockable early in the game where harvested roe can hatch and grow into mature, filletable fish. While it does lighten the burden of catching all of the game’s myriad fish over and over again, the fish farm creates a new headache for long-term players in its unorthodox control scheme. Moving up and down menus with “Q” and “E” never felt logical no matter how many times I did it, and the experience of scrolling through species after species of fish, making sure to harvest all but two feels more like a necessary chore than a method of avoiding one (note: the developers have since instituted a quick fix for this specific issue).
Similar in monotony to the fish farm is the (land) farm, the most Stardew thing about Dave the Diver and also unfortunately one of its weakest components. Once my new favorite rapper shows up with a special order for vegetable sushi, Dave gains access to a plot of farmland where he can grow a variety of vegetables to be used in Bancho’s expanding repertoire of dishes. For the first few weeks, running the farm is relatively easy, and quirks like managing the nutrient level of the soil feel like they might add more to the experience than they detract. Late-game, though, and especially post-game, the experience of sowing four rows of seeds that all grow at different rates and knowing many of them will be overcome with weeds anyway feels again more like a monotonous necessity than a twist to the game’s formula.
Fish farming and farm farming, for their quirks, are entirely optional. Moreover, by the end of my playthrough, they weren’t even really necessary. I kept fertilizing my crops and harvesting my lionfish more out of an internal discomfort with the idea of neglecting my work than financial necessity. The achievements awarded for agri- and aqua-culture are relatively low-stakes and distributed early on.
Less readily available was an achievement involving the biggest headache in my pursuit: the esoteric GYAO minigame, a marine take on Tamagotchi, the digital pet craze that had fifth-grade me sweating daily over pixelated feces. Taking care of GYAO pets is entirely optional, and choosing to let your virtual pet die in a pool of its own refuse goes entirely unpunished. In fact, the only rewards made available by participating are the achievement (raise 5 GYAO) and a page in MarinCa, your Pokémon Card-themed catalog of collected fish. (Word on the street is the devs have changed this in a recent patch, divorcing the list of GYAO fish from MarinCa entirely).
I write this all to make clear that you can easily make GYAO the afterthought it’s kinda intended to be. But if you don’t, if you laser focus on that last achievement, it’s gonna take you a while. “A while” here meaning “in-game weeks longer than almost any other achievement”. Luckily, the devs are ahead of me again — players can, at any time, choose to skip a portion of the day, eschewing a dive or a night at the restaurant in favor of saving some precious time. And now that I’d done everything but this, I had no reason not to blow past a week and finish the game in good time.
…but I can’t let Bancho down like that, can I? So, sure, I skipped an afternoon here and there, but I spent most of my days diving at least once, surfacing with a few big catches, and returning to land for another night at Bancho’s Sushi.
So, after all that, this is my official warning: if you play this game like an insane person, it’ll eventually start to feel exhausting and tedious.
This is hardly a fair metric to judge a game by. Any activity will lose its sheen when taken to the extreme. Here’s what I think matters: the core story experience of Dave the Diver is a rich, full, and unique game that held my attention from the first dive to the last and never stopped surprising me.
The style and plentiful substyles of gameplay come together to create an experience unlike anything else I’ve played before. The world is engaging and interesting. The characters are fun; what most lack in complexity they make up for in diversity and panache, from the virtual idol-obsessed, basement-dwelling gunsmith Duff to CIA-coded opportunist investor Cobra to misguided ecoterrorist John Watson. The game’s art style, occasionally in conflict with itself, hits far more often than it misses; the high-res pixel art animations featuring Bancho in his natural element are an eternal treat. The soundtrack does a great job of giving each of the Blue Hole’s regions a distinctive energy.
In all, Dave the Diver is a conglomerate composed of parts that, though they may look discordant, end up meshing in a way that creates something not just great, but totally unlike anything else on the market. Dip your toes in; you might be surprised at how deep the water is.
(Hot pepper tuna?)
Game: Dave the Diver
Published by: Mintrocket
Available for: Windows PC, macOS, Nintendo Switch
Tedium: Mandatory: Little to none; Optional: Plenty
Violence: Frequent fish harpooning
Content: Ill-conceived ecoterrorism
- Roguelite-lite gameplay – Dave the Diver‘s core gameplay loop is its twice-daily underwater dives, excursions made by the titular diver to retrieve whatever seafood and nautical resources he can before he runs out of space or oxygen, whichever comes first. If he gets attacked and taken down by sharks, or if he fails to keep his oxygen in check, the dive is over. Ultimately, each failed dive means half of a day goes wasted, but the consequences are far less imposing than a traditional roguelike (the overall run continues unabated), and lesser still compared to roguelites (Dave doesn’t actually lose everything; he can choose one item to haul to the surface as he’s being rescued).
- Restaurant management – With a time footprint of over two thirds of the game, Dave spends most of his waking hours underwater. When he’s not focused on capturing fish for the local sushi shop, though, he’s spending his evenings helping run it. Each night, Dave pulls himself up from the water and takes upon his shoulders the new task of hiring staff, setting the menu, and bussing out meals cooked by the illustrious, if taciturn, Chef Bancho. It serves to both break up the otherwise-repetitive gameplay and give a face to the game’s goal: this is what you’re fishing for, this is where the money is made. At the end of the day, it’s all about the smiles on the customers’ faces. (And maybe the massive tips, if you care about that sort of thing).
- Metroid-vania exploration – Dave’s chosen dive spot, conveniently located a curry block’s throw from Bancho’s Sushi, is the Blue Hole, an aquatic wonder characterized by its depth but heralded for its unique shapeshifting properties. The land that forms the Blue Hole changes each day, but each version of its darkening fathoms shares several features that serve to gate progression. It’s up to Dave to collect items and unlock gear that allow him to explore deeper to find new and unique fish for Bancho.
- Gradual upgrades – A portly tourist in a scuba suit isn’t everyone’s natural power fantasy avatar, but focusing the money earned in Bancho’s sushi on upgrades to further Dave’s dives kept me invested. I’m a fool for this sort of thing, and the pacing here feels just right.
- Boss fights – With a rhythmic core gameplay loop focused on resource collection, Dave the Diver can be a pretty relaxing game. But Dave’s dives are far from without danger, and a diverse array of sharks aren’t the only dangers he faces this far down. Blocking progress through some tight spots are the more hidden horns of the sea, biological (and sometimes mechanical) titans Dave will have to test his mettle against if he’s to find the best of what the Blue Hole has to offer.
- Varied, experimental gameplay – It’s true that, mathematically, most of your time playing Dave the Diver will probably be spent diving and running a sushi restaurant, but this game is so much more than those two experiences, constantly throwing new optional mechanics and minigames at the player. We’ve got a rhythm game segment, horse racing, Cooking Mama -esque cooking, Tamagotchi -esque… digital pet care?, Pokémon -coded trading cards, farming…. Not all of the game’s bonus experiences always hit, but together they form the image of a game that evolves as frequently as the Blue Hole, putting death to expectation.
WHAT I LIKED
- Beautiful high-res pixel art – Dave the Diver‘s art style is unique, mixing together high-resolution pixel art and low-resolution 3D visuals to create a wholly new aesthetic, something I’ve never really seen before. The 3D visuals are hit-or-miss, but the game’s pixel art cutscenes are beautifully done, artfully combining martial-themed aesthetics with the title’s native humor.
- Variation – Dave the Diver is a game that never quite lets you get used to it. From beginning to end, there’s always some new feature or minigame lurking a day or two ahead. It’s hard not to appreciate the dedication displayed by the games developers to really filling their game with content. This is a game that could have been “catch 10 fish, serve 10 fish. Catch 20 fish, serve 20 fish.” The additional features, minigames, and stories serve to flesh out an already fun game. I might not remember every dive I went on, but I’ll definitely remember the rhythm game I played exactly once.
- Rewarding gameplay loop – Going fishing with Dave is fun. Running Bancho’s sushi restaurant is fun. Having both of these sequences interact with each other in a way where progress in one is rewarded in the other results in a fulfilling experience that continues to invite and encourage further progression.
- Wholesome narrative – The character depth in Dave the Diver is limited. Most of the friends we meet are on-screen for only a short amount of time and fill pretty specific roles. But there’s still a happy flavor of camaraderie and community that develops among Dave and his friends and business partners. There’s a lot I can say about this game (and I have. There’s a whole review above this) but, maybe above all, it made me smile.
- Late-game fatigue – For most of the journey, the dual gameplay loop of Dave the Diver was more than enough to keep me interested in diving and serving day after day. As the game’s mechanics pile on and the responsibilities add up, though, some of the mechanics that were fun yesterday threaten to become burdensome today. Farming falls shy of being fun, a problem that grows more apparent with time, and searching for specific ingredients can feel out of place as the narrative ramps up against the more weighty goals being thrust upon Dave’s shoulders.
- Limited replayability – Dave the Diver is a game I’d heartily recommend for those introduced to video games by “cozy game” titles like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing who are interested in transitioning to slightly less cozy titles. This is a game that melds that familiar sort of cozy progression with more risk and higher-intensity encounters. But what those games offer in longevity, Dave compacts into a smaller, but still full, package. If you’re someone used to playing games for a week or two at a time and moving on, this won’t be a problem. But if your goal is spending a year in Dave’s scuba suit, the experience will probably fall short.
WHO’S IT FOR?
Dave the Diver is a great game for enterprising divers in search of a title mixing exploration-focused Metroidvania mechanics with light, low-stakes restaurant simulation. If you’ve been looking for that very specific game, look no further. You’ve found your mecca. If your tastes are less niche and you’re looking more generally for a fun, experimental, and wholesome game that rewards progression and is never afraid of changing up the formula, Dave the Diver is certainly worth your time.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for a long-time commitment, a real challenge, or a restaurant simulation game with deeper mechanics, Dave might be better off diving solo for now.