|Platforms||PC, PS4, XBO (reviewed)|
|Release Date||July 12, 2016|
Turns out, regardless of what Sebastian or Homer Simpson would have you believe, life under the sea isn’t necessarily all that great. At least not for Song of the Deep’s 12-year old protagonist Merryn. As the wonderfully illustrated introduction tells us, Merryn’s father is a fisherman who used to regale her with tall tales of his adventures in the ocean, until one day he didn’t return. So Merryn builds a submarine (don’t think I’m going to let that fact pass without comment) to find him and discovers that all his stories were, in fact, true.
Song of the Deep is essentially a 2D, ocean-bound Metroidvania. You explore a world not too dissimilar in feel to last years Ori and the Blind Forest. Except Song of the Deep replaces intense platforming with…driving a submarine. I mean, I don’t want to say that Insomniac have removed all of the challenge from their game, but it’s a Metroidvania where you steer a submarine around a “dangerous” ocean and take zero damage from crashing into stuff. Except enemies. You take damage from hitting soft, squishy sea creatures but not from ploughing a submarine constructed by a 12-year old into the ocean equivalent of a cliff. And that’s first hand experience talking.
I feel like any major criticism of Song of the Deep would feel especially harsh. Not because the game is particularly very good, more because it’s just really dull. Very little of consequence happens on Merryn’s journey under the sea (I will get that song stuck in your head by the end of this review). There’s no real challenge to the gameplay, aside from some wonky controls, and there’s no consequences for dying or failure.
It’s a very by-the-numbers Metroidvania too. You go to a section of the map, find there’s a bunch of treasures and other shiny collectibles that you can’t reach yet, before nabbing whatever thing you need to actually progress and move on to the next map section. Repeat until completion. Honestly if you weren’t paying close attention to the map or your surroundings you might even miss that Song of the Deep even had Metroidvania elements.
As I was breaking Song of the Deep down to construct my outline for this review I realised that there just wasn’t anything particularly memorable about it. I struggled to think of specific examples for everything. Song of the Deep is very forgettable because nothing it does really makes an impact. It’s lifeless. And it shouldn’t be. The introduction scenes, which are illustrated superbly, set a great scene and setup a fascinating fairytale-like story of a girl going to a magical world under the sea to find her missing father.
That’s a story that should be pretty great, but in the end it’s a wasted premise because nothing interesting happens for the rest of the game. An Irish lady narrates the experience as you find some dick jellyfish, there’s some stuff about a thing…I’m struggling to remember the rest of the story. Except the part where a 12-year old with no maritime experience builds a submarine. I don’t know why I’m so hung up on that part, given the rest of the game features fantastical creatures and a mythical world under the sea. I just am.
The gameplay is equally as forgettable as the story. There’s nothing really to the moment to moment gameplay. When you’re just exploring the world under the sea you’re not really doing anything for the most part. You’re piloting a submarine around that is invincible to bad driving. There’s nothing to really keep you engaged in what you’re doing when there are no enemies to fight or puzzles to solve.
Part of that comes from the fact that there’s no real challenge to moving through the environment, but that’s where the environment itself needs to step up and be interesting to look at. It’s not. Everywhere looks the same. All of the different places in Song of the Deep have different names but they all look the same. Same colour palette, same scenery, same objects in the environment. Same everything. The main distinguishing features of each area generally boil down to “this place has more sunken houses” or “this place is mostly tunnels.”
Once you start trying to engage in combat or solving puzzles you hit some pretty awkward feeling controls. You’ve got two options when fighting enemies – shoot them directly with a claw mounted on your sub or pick stuff up with said claw and throw it at them. There are pros and cons to both strategies, most of which boil down to what there is in the immediate vicinity to throw. Throwing stuff is generally a better idea, though, because you generally have a better idea of where it’s going to go.
The claw is really unwieldy to aim. It’s got some kind of soft auto aim component that kind of feels like it works when it wants to. It only ever fires out from the front of the sub, so you’ve got to be facing enemies when you fire it, which can be a problem because to dodge enemy attacks you generally need to be moving in a direction that’s not directly towards them. It creates this really strange gameplay loop where you generally need to decide between attacking an enemy or trying to dodge its attacks.
If you dodge by moving away from them it can be really awkward to turn back around and attack, because the laws of physics in the ocean dictate that movement is sluggish by design. Of course there’s the really obvious option – just keep swimming. Most combat can be straight up avoided without much effort if you just keep speeding on by. There’s only one enemy you can’t actually outrun (apart from some unskippable battles here and there), which kind of makes you question why the combat exists in the first place.
Puzzles are more of a focus than combat, which is better because they generally feel better to interact with. They still suffer from some awkward feeling controls, but this awkwardness generally stems from the fact that you’re driving a submarine around under the sea. It’s awkwardness by design. That doesn’t make it any less infuriating when you’re trying to carefully navigate a bomb you’ve grappled to a metal gate that needs blowing up, but it’s understandable and actually adds a layer of challenge to the game.
There are some nice touches to combat – such as the ability to time the use of your claw to grab incoming torpedoes. You can combine this with a boost ability to hurl these projectiles right back at the bastard that launched it at you. This is a really cool bit of gameplay design that doesn’t really come up very often. At all. Which is a shame because I feel like if the game had more of this, and less of the generic enemies that are incredibly awkward to fight and much easier to sail past, the game would have benefited greatly.
In true Metroidvania fashion you’re going to need upgrades to progress. Some can be found through exploration, others need to be purchased from a friendly crab who doubles as an ocean floor shopkeeper (new theory: Song of the Deep is really Merryn on an acid trip). Exploration yields dubloons that you can spend on upgrades ranging from essential, such as different variations of torpedo, to optional, such as upgrades to your engine or claw. While I appreciated the ability to upgrade my hand-built sub, it was pretty damn annoying that a portion of my cash needed to be spent on stuff to get me to the next part of the game, rather than finding it organically in the game world.
As much as I usually love Insomniac’s games, it pains me to say that Song of the Deep is a bit of a dud. It’s not that the game is bad at all, more that it’s simply boring and forgettable. After a strong opening the story meanders to the point of becoming irrelevant, and the Metroidvania style gameplay can’t really pick up any of the slack. Combat is awkward to the point that it’s preferable to simply avoid it and its generic enemies whenever possible, aside from one interesting fight repeated a few times. Puzzles are better, but even these tend to be the same few things repeated over and over again. And exploration doesn’t really yield anything interesting, just some dubloons or some statues that are immediately converted into dubloons.
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