Song of the Deep (PS4, PC, Xbox One)
Developer: Insomniac Games
Release: July 12, 2016
Score: 7.5 out of 10
The gaping expanse of the ocean is the perfect setting for a video game and yet it so rarely gets explored. Insomniac Games rights that wrong in their latest title, Song of the Deep, which plunges you beneath the icy lip of the sea in the role of Merryn, a twelve-year-old girl in search of her missing father.
Insomniac has been at the forefront of the industry for 22 years now, and with Song of the Deep, I get the sense they’re taking a break from the big leagues and letting out a big sigh of relief. The game that results is sweet and simple, with hand-drawn cutscenes and exposition doled out to you like a parent talking to a child.
This is certainly a family-friendly title and in a day and age of guts and gore, there’s something decidedly sweet about one daughter’s search for her missing father. In composition, Song of the Deep is a 2D platformer in the image of the great Metroidvania titles. This year alone, we’ve seen titles like Salt and Sanctuary do amazing things within the 2D framework, and Song of the Deep is a good effort. Not as good, perhaps, but certainly memorable.
Insomniac balances action, puzzle-solving and exploration and ties it together with a rich world that takes you from the sparkling reefs of a forgotten underwater garden to the darkest depths of the sea. The setting is a key differentiator here, and since you’re underwater, there are no real “platforms” per se. The controls have just the right amount of weight and lag to mimic the sensation of travelling underwater without being so unresponsive as to be annoying, and there’s a hand-drawn map to let you keep track of where you’re going.
The world doesn’t bend on itself like the great platform titles of yore, but then it doesn’t need to, because at any moment you can bring up a diagram to see where you are. The map gradually grows as you discover new areas and come across routes that you’ll open later on, and Song of the Deep feels almost open world in this respect.
Each main area feels distinctive too, and as you unlock tools like torpedo launchers and sonar devices, you’ll be able to explore deeper and further. What’s really impressive is how Insomniac rinses the most out of the setting, giving you a variety of looks at a world under the sea. At its best, Song of the Deep is clever and varied and good enough to keep you guessing. Blocking your path are an assortment of enemies, in the form of jellyfish, fish, crabs and boss fights too. Enemies get harder and appear more readily as the game goes along, and the shooting controls are tight, even if the combat isn’t particularly interesting.
Puzzles are a big component of the experience. One brainteaser midway through the game is so intricate it can take a couple of hours to solve. This gigantic set-piece of Einstein-puzzling proportions asks that you link together an intricate set of lights through an underwater skyscraper filled with locked doors, levers, and enemies. I was utterly stumped after minutes, but then I’ve got very little patience (or aptitude for lateral thinking). Some of you will absolutely love it while others of you will find it impossible. The upshot? It’s at least memorable.
At its worst, Song of the Deep is unfair. One badly-conceived set-piece tested my patience to the extreme. In this late-game sequence, you’re asked to evade the clutches of a fleet of enemies through an obstacle course of sorts, with heart-pounding music and enemies on your tail. So far, so good. Except, the game cheats, spawning enemies out of the woodwork and stacking the odds unfairly against you. It doesn’t matter that you’ve timed your evasive maneuvers perfectly because the game has just pulled a low blow – and bam, you’ve got to take it. It took me 20 tries to beat, and it’s the very antithesis of good game design.
In fact, the final stretches of Song of the Deep are too much of a slog: over-reliant on spawning enemies that have always been a secondary aspect of the experience up until this point. It begins to lose its lustre and a little bit of its charm, but despite this, it remains strangely compelling right until the end.
It’s not perfect, but it is a charming and well-conceived and a great way to spend a weekend curled up in front of the TV. The experience is like watching a good Disney movie, and the music and production values are top notch. This won’t redefine the way we play games, but it might reignite an interest in imagining life under the sea.
What are your thoughts on Song of the Deep? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!