Song of the Deep is more than meets the eye.
The game is a test bed of sorts for Insomniac Games, who’s known for Ratchet & Clank, Resistance, and in some circles, Sunset Overdrive. Song of the Deep is a serene 2D Metroidvania-style exploration game, and it doesn’t exactly hide it either. What may prove to be most interesting though is that this is the first game to be published by GameTrust, an independent publishing initiative from GameStop.
This isn’t exactly what I expected when it was revealed that Insonmiac was working with GameStop on a new IP, not at all. Besides Insomniac’s upcoming VR titles, they haven’t done a small game like this in quite a long time. When I booted up the game a few weeks ago, I was truly taken aback by what I was seeing on screen. However, after closer examination, the game loses its sense of polish and identity soon after.
Song of the Deep‘s narrative is simplistic in nature. You play as Merryn, a young girl with no mother to speak of and a father who loves to fish. When he doesn’t come home one night, Merryn builds herself a submarine from scrap and dives into the depths of the sea to find him, with memories of fanciful bedtime stories of fearsome creatures to fill her head. However, these creatures might be a little more real than she thought, and Merryn will have to use the knowledge she’s gained to deduce exactly what happened to the forgotten city hiding beneath the tide, and maybe even rescue her father.
Part of the reason Song of the Deep pulled me in is the art on display here. Even when I was frustrated with the game, at least I can still say that it looks absolutely stunning, which is more than I can say for most games. Cutscenes look like they jumped right out of a storybook for children, and the outside narrator does a lot to support that. You see, in my few hours with the game, I never said to myself “Well, that looks bleak.” In fact, quite the opposite. Every frame gives you a sense of awe, wonder, and invites you to explore to see exactly what the sea can offer you. This is just one of the ways Song of the Deep will pull you in, regardless of what part of the gaming sector you come from.
In keeping with that, the ocean is yours to explore, but being a Metroidvania, you kind of already know what will block your progress. Say that there’s a treasure, but it’s hidden behind a barrier you haven’t seen before. Don’t worry, you’ll come back later. Trying to go to a new area before you have the upgrades? Sorry, nope. You’ll have to come back later. In context of this setting, it doesn’t really work that well as a Metroidvania game, because while the core aspect of not being able to access new areas without an upgrade remains intact, this is a rather focused experience, not something like Arkham Origins Blackgate, where you’re tasked with taking down The Joker, but you’ve got to take care of Batman’s rogue gallery first.
However, it’s not all bad. There’s an upgrade you acquire late in the game that allows Merryn to exit the submarine and explore on her own. These are some of the best sections of the game. Gone are the clunky controls of the submarine and, with limited hit points, the game turns into this nice strategy game, in a way. Whenever I died in these sections, it was ,9 times out of 10, my fault, instead of the controls. There’s this section late on in the game where Merryn has to point colored beams of light at these tiny little orbs, and the game gives you the tools to understand and solve each one of these light-based puzzles, which in a game that relies heavily on them, I was never throwing my controller at frustration at this section.
Furthermore, the most intriguing and engaging segments in Song of the Deep aren’t when combat-heavy, when it demands the very least of you. When the game does more than that, that’s precisely the moment in which it fails the player. In the last act of the game, the “final stretch”, Song of the Deep leans on powerful waves of enemies you need to take care of before proceeding to the next room. These sections are not fun, because combat in this game doesn’t work well with the submarine’s clunky controls and my missiles not hitting their intended target about 30% of the time.
In these moments, Song of the Deep feels like it’s tacking on these combat arenas just so the game can tick a box on how long it is and sadly, this isn’t the only time I got this feeling while playing this game. While every Metroidvania game relies heavily on backtracking and waiting for the one item you need to get to a new area, Song of the Deep makes it feel like a slap on the wrist. In all likelihood, you’ll probably see an area like The Maw about 4 or 5 times before the game ends, because of how the game haphazardly it gives you a new item required to advance, and the sense of progression is lost.
In fact, the final boss is a perfect example of this, locking me in a room with various enemies, several of which can be disposed of with a couple of hits from your missiles. In these sections, any minor hiccup meant doing the entire thing over again. There’s actually a specific section outside the boss battle that sums this up perfectly. Before the game was updated to version 2.5, there was this section in the Bone Vaults about 30 minutes or so before you finish the game that involved a Red Reaper chase. What this section required of the player was to be fast and efficient, even when the game didn’t necessarily give you the tools to do so. Even more appalling was how far these Red Reapers could reach to kill you in one hit, no matter what you did. For example, I could be halfway down the hall and a Red Reaper would kill me, just like that. During the game’s final moments, it felt nugatory.
Song of the Deep will keep you in the deep for about six hours, which gives it time to be bad, just not a total trainwreck, and there are many things I really enjoyed in this game. Merryn, the voice acting, and just how gorgeous the game looks are all a welcome change from these AAA games that rely on gameplay over graphics, and the sense of wonder that is present in 2 of the 3 narrative arcs is really wonderful, but it’s hard to shake that the game doesn’t know how to deliver on its’ promises.
Song of the Deep was reviewed using an Xbox One download code provided by Insomniac Games.