Underwater gameplay is the highlight of any game in which it is featured. Ask anyone their favourite section of a game and they’ll give you the same list; escorting Emma in MGS2, Blitzball in Final Fantasy X, the famously joyous water temple in Ocarina of Time, any underwater level of a Mario or Sonic game, and of course the culturally paramount Ecco The Dolphin in its entirety. No matter how bad the game, it’s hard to design a water level that isn’t thrillingly fun.
This, of course, is absolutely false – though it needn’t be. As interesting as an underwater setting is, the frustrating, floaty tedium of actually controlling an underwater character is rarely overcome. With Song of The Deep, Insomniac attempt to build a submarine based Metroidvania game, relying on its setting to create mechanical and narrative distinction. What results is a truly unique, interesting take on the genre, but not without succumbing to some of the traits so annoyingly prevalent in underwater gameplay.
When Merryn’s fisherman father fails to return from his daily venture across the ocean, she takes it upon herself to fashion scraps of wood and metal into a fully functional submarine, as is the obvious solution. With her home-made sea vehicle scraped together, she takes to the seas to search for her dear Dad, as we all would. What unfolds is a sincere, touching tale of adventure, told through minimal narration and cutscenes reminiscent of a picture book. The scenario, setting and storytelling in Song of The Deep are absolutely perfect for a game of its nature. Environments feel lonely and mysterious, while important events and discoveries are described enough to explain and expand the curious conditions.
The act of playing Song of The Deep, unfortunately, is a much more mixed bag. At its best, SotD uses basic mechanics in interesting ways. At its worst, things can feel unfair, tedious and frustrating. Utilising water currents and submerged physics to solve puzzles is clever and accomplishes what so many have failed to in using floaty mechanics to create an interesting situation. Larger scale puzzles are often overwhelming, and more of a build up would have been nice, but slowly piecing together a solution compensates with satisfaction. Conversely, puzzles involving dragging around mines or outrunning hostile sea-life are instantly solvable but punishingly difficult to execute. After attempting the same thing over and over, it feels like you’re fighting against the game more than a problem it’s put before you. For every awesome new ability, SotD has an annoying way to use it.
‘Combat’ though, is the low point of SotD. While you earn different gear to damage enemies in various ways, the game never – not even once – encourages you to do so. Enemies either need to be hit by anything, anywhere or struck from behind after they attack. Never mind the techniques you gather throughout the game, enemies just get bigger and stronger – never different. Before long, 95% of SotD’s encounters feel like a way to slow you down, detracting from the game with frustrating, needless waves of foes, without ever having a need for them.
As you’d expect from a game boasting the ‘Metroidvania’ tag, collecting treasure and filling out the map is fun. The only problem is that it feels unrewarded. Everything appears on the map by default, so if you have the necessary gear, it’s yours. This paired with a lack of rewards, means clearing an area of its treasure and cleaning up the map isn’t ever incentivised – not even by achievements/trophies, of which SotD has very few.
While the mechanics often feel contradictory to the spirit of the game, the aesthetic of the ocean and sentimental soundtrack are wonderfully congruous. The emotional, quietly grand score sits immaculately with the gentle, fluid layers of seascape Merryn journeys through. The beautifully serene and uneasy unknown flow effortlessly into one another in Song of The Deep. Considerable stuttering and occasional pop-in undeniably detract from the otherwise tranquil presentation, unfortunately, but never enough to spoil the mood.
Song of the Deep is a genuinely heartfelt adventure through an exotic, memorable ocean. Though its frustrations often outshine its clever use of mechanics, the sweet story and relaxing setting is always present and always wonderful. Play on beginner difficulty to keep the combat to a minimum and Song of The Deep is still an experience worth having – even if it fails to avoid the pitfalls of underwater slogs before it.