Developed by Insomniac Games, the revered team most recently behind the superb Xbox One exclusive Sunset Overdrive, Song of the Deep probably received more publicity based on it being the first-ever title from GameTrust Games — the newly formed publishing wing of retail chain GameStop.
On paper, collaborating with a long-time developer seems like a smart way to test the waters, but is Song of the Deep strong enough to make a splash? Let’s dive in and find out (and see if I can’t mix in a few more aquatic puns along the way).
Without question, assigning a score to how Song of the Deep handles has to be one of the more difficult undertakings I’ve had across the hundreds of games I’ve reviewed. There are moments where the game completely infuriated me, whether it was the ceaseless push of the current or trying to navigate a bomb on a tether through tight spaces, and more than a few profanities were hurled. That being said, it never reached the point where that frustration outweighed the desire to continue playing.
Make no mistake, though, patience is a prerequisite because there are going to be sequences that will end in failure (and/or death) over and over again. And the vast majority of the blame for those shortcomings will trace back to the floaty underwater controls. Of course, that begs the question if tighter controls would’ve made the game too easy.
Combat and puzzle solving are the primary offerings, and you’ll use an ever-expanding repertoire of abilities to handle both. You’ll start with a basic claw that can strike enemies and grab objects, and you’ll add more from there: different kinds of torpedoes, searchlights, sonar, evasive capabilities and the ability to leave your makeshift submarine and swim around.
Outside of the general imprecision that comes from operating underwater it’s pretty easy to keep track of your abilities — there’s a hint of “other than that Mrs. Lincoln” in that statement — albeit with a couple of notable issues. Flipping between torpedo types (electric, fire, ice) with the right stick can be imprecise and charging up torpedoes for secondary usage didn’t seem to work consistently.
Stylistically, Song of the Deep is very well done, mixing in fantastical takes on recognizable creatures beneath the waves. Much of the most interesting stuff takes place in the background, though, with enemy variety and world design not nearly as strong. That being said, there’s a mesmerizing quality to the colors and movement of the world that helps make it enjoyable to explore.
There’s serenity to the soundtrack that smartly complements the sense of isolation you feel as you pilot your tiny submarine through the vast ocean. The gentle narration fits as well. I only wish there would’ve been more sounds from the sea life.
After her father went out on his daily fishing trip and didn’t return, Merryn cobbles together a vessel to go looking for him under the sea. What she finds is a world of myth and legend, including the remnants of a lost civilization. As her search continues, she finds herself becoming caught up in helping others in an attempt to right a terrible wrong done long ago.
It’s a tender story, one with its share of highs and lows, and it does enough to get you to invest in Song of the Deep‘s metroidvania structure. As noted, you begin with a claw and grow your arsenal from there, unlocking new weapons and abilities along the way. Each of these has an upgraded mode to find — for example, basic lights give way to a version that makes certain creatures recoil — that will grant you access to previously unreachable areas.
There’s also plenty of hidden treasure, and that gold is then used to purchase additional improvements that, while not necessary for progression, will make your task easier. These include more powerful variants of the claw, reduced cooldown times and so on. Hull and energy boosts are also scattered about that allow you to absorb more damage and fire more projectiles.
While the metroidvania approach is largely engaging, Song of the Deep makes a few missteps along the way. For starters, backtracking can be quite lengthy, and the map can be ambiguous as to whether a particular gate needs to be approached from a specific direction. Warp points scattered about help to some degree, but more could’ve been done.
To that end, the inability to set a marker becomes an annoyance, as the labyrinthine world leads to all kinds of wrong turns. My solution: flipping open the map repeatedly. Being able to ping where I was headed from the sub would’ve been a better resolution.
Combat also has a very repetitive feel. Enemies typically emerge from the background, and they almost always engage in open areas so the encounters bleed together. Eventually I just started avoiding them unless I absolutely had to. Even the boss battles offer a pretty tight one-off of the fights you’ve been encountering throughout the game.
As long as you can accept that there are going to be moments where you’ll battle the controls, Song of the Deep is worth immersing yourself in. That it only costs $15 makes it an even easier decision.