Dave the Diver was an Early Access game that just jumped to a 1.0 Release within the past month. It’s been doing very well since then and passed the million sales mark, which is awesome for an indie game. I especially appreciate when people hit the jackpot when they deserve it - and this is definitely the case here. You know the kind of unwritten rule that says something like “you should not mix two games at once in your game”? Well the guys from MINTROCKET decided that where they are going, they don’t need any rules anyway, and conveniently ignored it. Dave the Diver takes on this difficult challenge of mixing 2 games in one, and does it brilliantly.
It’s yet another game centered on fishing, which is a recurring theme these days (DREDGE, anyone?) but focuses on a different point of view. You are a fat guy called Dave (hence Dave the Diver), who is hired to go fishing with a harpoon and a knife in the depth of the Blue Hole, somewhere around beautiful tropical islands. Every day you go dive twice (morning and afternoon) and get as much fish as you can carry, and bring them back (dead or alive) in your fish tank. Once the day is over, you work extra hours at Bancho Sushi, a hip sushi bar in a nearby island owned by one of your acquaintances.
At Bancho sushi, your partner is a big black dude. Bancho, who’s the Sushi Master in town - and the main thing you do to help around is by serving customers and helping manage the restaurant, while the cooking is the business of your friend Bancho.
The bar only opens in the evening and serves the fishes you have caught during the day. While the sushi bar business looks simple at first, complexity quickly adds up, as upgrade for the dishes become available, as research to create new recipes unlocks. To attract and retain customers, you can customize the look of your bar with interior furniture and better chairs and decorations, and once you get a little too popular for your own good, you need to strongly considering hiring one or a few more waiters to help you around to serve dishes on time - customers don’t like to wait forever and will leave angry reviews if you fail to give them the goods in a reasonable time.
This part of the game is about making money and increasing your bottom line so that you can spend it on actual equipment. The challenge here reminds me of the old 8 bits game like Tapper where you try to serve all customers as fast as possible before they leave. There’s a mini-game where you also serve tea for some customers and you have to put the right amount of tea in their cup to make them happy. As people finish eating you also have to clean up their left-overs, and once in while grind some more wasabi as the chef runs out.
In other words, quite a few responsibilities that you can alleviate by hiring some additional staff. The game plays on the fact that Dave, being overweight, is unfit, and gets really tired and slows down after running a few time left and right in the restaurant. Which is why additional waiters will become essential to speed things up.
In between the different phases, there are quite often a few mini-events that take place when you complete some objectives - or triggered by some events. The whole thing is very well written and there is a good sense of tempo - right at the time when you’d think the game is about to get repetitive, it gives you a new element to play with or a new objective that goes beyond just fishing. Once, a dolphin comes to ask for your help during your dive… another time, you are asked to go and explore the depths to find the traces of an unknown civilization submerged for long. And there are rumors of giant sea monsters lurking around…
The diving part is the one that requires the most getting used to. I found it easy to move around, but using the harpoon to hit the fish around you (what violence!) seems convoluted (requires two buttons). After a while I could get a hang of it, but it took longer than I wanted. You could also think that this part gets boring since it’s just about Dave diving and grabbing some innocent fish in the sea, but you get to encounter slightly larger fishes that want to fight and attack you. And worse, large sharks as well. When a fish lands an attack on you, you lose oxygen, and if your oxygen tank levels goes to zero, you are magically rescued by your friends but you lose everything you collected. So you don’t really die, but makes you waste your time.
In the sea, it’s not just about fishes. There are boxes in certain places, cans, weapons to be found, and also some remains of ships that sunk to the bottom. While you catch fishes it’s always a good idea to look around and see if there’s something cool you can bring back as well. You are also rewarded when you bring back new fishes that were not used until now, as it makes your sushi menu more attractive to the customers.
Back on the boat you can access your mobile phone, and every application on it leads to more capabilities. The To-Do list application lists the quests you have to complete, the diver app lets you purchase and install upgrades for your diving suit (such as more oxygen to stay longer underwater, or a better suit to go deeper in the sea).
You have a social app where followers comment about your friend’s Sushi Bar - and you can “like” their comments just like on a regular social network. The weapons app gives you access to crafting weapons for your next dive. Note that weapons are ephemeral: you can only use them for the next dive, and after that they are considered degraded and gone. So you constantly need to purchase those if you want to rely on actual guns.
Apart from your harpoon, there’s always the knife that you can use to attack fishes. It works well for jellyfishes and larger, slow fishes, but not so much for anything else. In any case, no diving session is exactly like the last one, since they are procedurally generated. The environment always changes. At first I was not sure if it was a good idea, but it makes sense: Even in reality you don’t necessarily always dive in the exact same spot…
At heart, while everything is rendered in 3D, Dave the Diver is a 2D game with a lot of mini-games in it. And as unlikely as it sounds, it works very well. Probably because it’s damn well executed. You can feel the polish in every part of the game - there was no need to make the phone look like a phone - you could have turned all of its options into simple menus like in most games. But they did go the extra mile to present information in this way.
There was no need to make a rather complex sushi bar simulation, but they did it, kept it accessible, and made that part actually very fun to play. Most successful games do one thing very very well - Dave the Diver takes this to the next level - with both parts of the game just as equally strong and convincing. And there’s the cutscenes mixing “pixel art” with visual anime tropes, too, turning some achievements into visual events that are a delight to watch.
The game is well balanced - it does not demand hours of your time to progress. You can do a dive in 5 to 10 minutes and come back to the game later - and still make progress bit by bit every single day. Did I tell you they got everything right yet? It bears repeating.
I played it so far on the Steam Deck only (it’s now Verified). During the Early Access phase, it had a pretty poor performance and you had to increase the Deck’s power consumption to keep a reasonable framerate despite the fact it did not display anything remotely impressive. But the 1.0 release has changed the deal, and the game now runs at stable 50 FPS at 5W of power, which is very close to ideal.
A lot of good and original ideas, memorable characters, a very solid execution - Dave the Diver is the second great surprise of the year, a few months after DREDGE. Highly recommended.