Dave the Diver is incredibly fun. I had no idea what to expect going in, other than that it was a popular and beloved game from earlier in the year, but it took it under an hour to totally enrapture me. By the time the prologue was done, I knew I was playing something special, and that feeling never really subsided from there on.
Just as I would begin to think I had a hang of what the game’s structure and mechanics were, it would layer on something completely new and force me to readjust my rhythm. Hours upon hours into the game, it was pulling this same trick over and over until it should have been, by any reasonable metric, an unwieldy mist-mash of systems, mechanics, and mini games that simply should not work together. And yet, they do, and they come together to create a magically addictive and compelling loop.
“You play through the life of Dave, day by day, and each day is broken into multiple discrete chunks of time.”
In case you, like me, somehow don’t understand what Dave the Diver is or why everyone who plays it starts raving about it, it’s a bizarre blend of RPG and adventure, with time management and minor action elements thrown in to boot. You play as Dave, who is a diver (shocking, I know), who gets in with a friend on opening a Sushi Restaurant near a mysterious water body called the Blue Hole. Initially, this simply entails helping run the place – diving into the Blue Hole to collect fish and ingredients, and then serving the finished dishes later in the day to customers at the restaurant. But then it rapidly escalates and goes in different directions entirely. Soon, you are helping catalog the local wildlife, recovering items lost at sea (or, uh, lake? Whatever the Blue Hole is), and even stumbling upon an ancient aquatic civilization.
The already out there directions the story bounds off into are accentuated by a very colourful cast of characters. Pretty much every single person you meet is a memorable, colourful sort, exhibiting the exact right blend of over the top gimmickry and a tongue in cheek sense of self awareness. The frequent animated interludes are so obviously over the top given the context, and played up so much, it felt impossible to me to not be charmed. Every character feels interesting to interact with, and if there is one criticism I have, it is that sometimes I’d want to talk to them more than the game would let me.
In terms of gameplay, Dave the Diver is… well, hard to explain. You play through the life of Dave, day by day, and each day is broken into multiple discrete chunks of time. You spend the morning and afternoon diving, while you spend the evening working at the restaurant. These two lead to two very different gameplay loops. The former, which takes up the bulk of your time, involves you slowly descending into the Blue Hole’s depths in a sort of side scrolling action game format. In the depths, you have to not only collect ingredients for later the evening (whether it is by killing the marine life wantonly, or by gathering the more inert stuff), but also anything else the locals have asked for help with – whether it’s to collect certain specimens to help a grad student complete her research, or to save the local wildlife from would-be ne’er-do-wells, and many more other fun, contrived scenarios to get you to spend more time exploring when you dive.
“You play through the life of Dave, day by day, and each day is broken into multiple discrete chunks of time. You spend the morning and afternoon diving, while you spend the evening working at the restaurant. These two lead to two very different gameplay loops.”
Exploration can feel serene. The Blue Hole changes layouts each time you go in (though important landmarks and the general layout seem to be the same across multiple runs), so you never quite know what to expect, but it can be fun just slowly watching the schools of fish swim by, as you slowly make your way to that outcropping of rock to nab yourself a starfish. However, you need to watch out for your oxygen (you can’t let it run out), your depth (your suit and gear needs to be upgraded to be able to go deeper), as well as the marine life that will also be hostile – whether they simply be poisonous sea urchins that hurt you if you unwisely try to pick them up, or something a lot scarier, like sharks.
You can defend yourself against a lot of these threats by using a knife for close ranged combat, or a gun for ranged combat. You also get a harpoon which you can aim and throw, and obviously, you can use all three weapons to also collect fish and marine life for the restaurant later in the day. You can equip different kinds of equipment to get better (or the more desired, at any rate) results. You can craft new gear for yourself entirely. You can upgrade your existing gear. And all of this is just the diving side of the game.
In the evenings, you help run a restaurant. This plays completely differently with almost zero mechanical overlap with the rest of the game (the overlap is narrative, structural, and thematic), and involves you first deciding on the menu for the day based on the ingredients you have, and then serving the customers as they come in, making sure to deliver the right people the right orders without taking too much time, while also keeping an eye on your ingredients and menu and making sure you are topping up the necessary stuff (wasabi) to keep the place open for as long as possible.
You don’t have to cook, but you’re doing pretty much everything else – you set the dishes on the menu, you open the restaurant, you deliver people their orders, you take away the dirty dishes, and at the end of it all, you make a bunch of money that can then be used to upgrade your diving gear. Oh, after a while, there’s a social media feed where you can check what others think of your restaurant too. You see what I mean about the game having a ludicrous amount of systems, right?
“It sounds like a somewhat random mish-mash of mechanics thrown in together with the loosest possible contextualization, and truth be told, it kind of is that, but it works, and it works really well. It’s delightfully addictive and engrossing, and it is a game that is incredibly well suited to a portable like the Nintendo Switch”
It sounds like a somewhat random mish-mash of mechanics thrown in together with the loosest possible contextualization, and truth be told, it kind of is that, but it works, and it works really well. It’s delightfully addictive and engrossing, and it is a game that is incredibly well suited to a portable like the Nintendo Switch, with its gameplay neatly breaking down into discrete bite sized chunks that lend themselves very well to the Switch’s pick up and play nature.
The actual conversion job for the Switch is well done too. The control mapping is logical and becomes second nature soon enough, the UI has been smartly rescaled for the Switch, and the game’s pixel-inspired graphic style translates extremely well to the Switch as well. There are portions of the game where it suffers some slowdown, particularly in more intense boss fights, or dives that have a lot more going on. These can sometimes create some frustrating situations – thankfully, these don’t happen very often, but I wish they never happened at all.
In a year full of great games, Dave the Diver is one that still manages to stand out. It was a big hit when its 1.0 version hit PC earlier this year, and it manages to remain a standout experience now that it has launched on the Switch as well. The best recommendation that I can give Dave the Diver is that, in a year as packed and full of great games as 2023 has been, I would still call special attention to it, and say that it stands out.
Go play it.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.