Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Review: Song of the Deep

Song of the Deep
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: GameTrust Games

I remember the first time I ever gazed out onto the ocean. I had grown up in a place that was the furthest thing from wet; a hot, dry desert. So understandably, I didn't quite know what to expect when I flew out east to Florida.

I could smell the ocean water from blocks away as we drove down to the beach. In front of me was a huge crowd of people gathered all over the sand with towels, tents, and so much sunblock it smelled like a casting call for Baywatch . Bemused by what was so interesting to these people, I finally looked upwards and outwards beyond the throngs of people to what was truly interesting, the vast Atlantic ocean. Never had I seen the color blue stretch out so far. I couldn't see anything else but the ocean. The sheer enormity of it sent chills down my spine. I wanted to jump in but at the same time, something innately inside me, told me to respect it. Many, many years later I was reunited with my sense child like wonder thanks to Song of the Deep.

Where games like Abzu celebrate the beauty and majesty of the ocean life, Song of the Deep delves into its mysterious nature and the way it inspires a sense of exploration. It combines a touch of magic, mystery, and science fiction all into one unique Metroidvania. The developer Insomniac is known for creating colorful and wonderful universes such as Spyro and Ratchet & Clank. With this title they did not fail to deliver on the same whimsy and charm.

The game starts off simply enough with a little girl, Merryn, and her father. The father goes out into the deep dark blue every single day and comes back home every single night. At least until one night, when he doesn't return, and our heroine decides that against all odds she is going to find him.

This is the point where you need to suspend your disbelief and believe in the "Magic" aspect of the game. The girl whips together a functional, pint sized submarine. (I think this girl could be Captain Nemo's mother.) The game almost plays out like a fairy tale except that you are in control. Merryn makes her way into the ocean and begins a long exhaustive journey to find her father.

One thing I shouldn't forget to mention, is the delightful Siobhan Hewlett's narration of the entire game. Her soothing voice describes the plot, actions, and thoughts of our little heroine throughout the entire journey. You could look at games like Bastion for a similar affect.

Merryn is dropped into the ocean with all of its secrets, meticulous art, wonderful music and sound design. The game is played from a side view as you can move at any 360' degree angle. Gamers who are familiar with this genre can understand the challenge this poses to a Metroidvania style game. Usually games of this nature use height and distance as a measure to stop you from being somewhere you shouldn't be, like the final boss, or to prevent the skipping of story elements. That isn't possible in the setting of Song of the Deep. There is no jumping/dashing or gravity. Here we are dealing with things like underwater currents, lack of light, and mostly doors. Lots of doors! We've got stone doors, fire doors, glass doors, metal doors, wood doors and ice doors. Doors are the primary means of keeping you from somewhere you don't belong.

Powers are distributed at a fairly constant rate to overcome these doors and other puzzle elements. The gold you manage to collect from treasure hunting or combat can be spent at a store to upgrade your arsenal. There are three torpedo types: fire, ice, and kinetic. There is sonar and my personal favorite the diving suit, which allows outside exploration of your submarine. Fans of the 1988, Blaster Master will see similar ideas, where you can only only solve certain puzzles and reach areas outside of your submarine. I found the puzzles outside of my submarine to be the most difficult and entertaining. You feel fragile outside your sub and the game knows it.

Aside from being a vehicle for the beautiful sounds of the ocean and ominous soundtrack that accompanies you as you delve into a dark cavern, the game also has its action element. This is where it can be a bit of a hit or miss for people.

The combat often becomes very repetitive, and at times bothersome, as you tread back through old territories looking for upgrades/treasure. It's not that the combat itself is bad, but the game definitely lacks in the variety of bad guys and tactics. Once you learn how to kill a particular foe, even when they upgrade to fiercer forms, it still employs the same method for dealing with them, which a good ninety five percent of the time, is just charging at them and using your claw. You can use torpedo and other weapons but the claw really just handles everything. The claw, by the way, is how you primarily interact with your environment, puzzles, and baddies. From grabbing puzzle pieces to dispatching floating mines, it's your go to weapon. Pro tip: if you wanna win this game just invest all your gold into the claw and then everything else.

Ultimately, the combat could've been a bit more dynamic, perhaps by making enemies claw resistant or only defeated by fire, ice, etc. While I personally didn't mind the combat, I felt my only challenge in the entire game was the late game introduction of enemy submarines, which you fight a handful of times.

The focus on the game however isn't really on its combat but rather its puzzles. This is where the game shines and really plays with the usage of physics, and combination of your capabilities. The puzzle design is constantly changing, and always seems like a fresh idea is introduced per area. What I loved even more, were the puzzles that were hidden or disguised. Feeding a giant monster despite its terrifying appearance was one that reminded me of how beautiful and mysterious the ocean could be. I felt accomplished when I figured out how to lower and raise the blow fish barriers. It is these little moments that make me remember the game play fondly.

The game is available across systems including PS4(the version I played) Xbox, PC and includes achievements, etc. Since the game uses a unique art style and isn't terribly graphically demanding, I doubt you see any difference regardless of your preferred machine. There were no bugs in the game that have not been corrected for already, but I did manage to get stuck once.

Overall this is a very well designed game. Like I mentioned before, if I had any primary gripe with the game, it would be its method for unlocking new areas. I found myself not terribly excited getting a new power because I knew its purpose immediately was for a door of some sort. By the end I just wanted all my powers, so I could just get everything and stop retreading through areas. Upgrading your submarine especially requires quite a bit of retracing your steps.

There is a total of two boss battles both that are very simple in design but do feel epic in scope. The games ending is satisfying, and the overall story was quite pleasant and soothing. This is easily a family friendly game and you could let your kids play this and not worry at all.

I think new fans of the genre will have a delightful time with this game. Its unique style, simple combat and fantastic puzzles make this a wonderful introduction to Metroidvania style games.

Veterans of the genre will be able ahead of the game on this one and should primarily focus on the story elements. Very decently priced at $14.99 this game is a steal as far as length goes. I got a good twenty hours out of the game but I also really took my time and collected almost everything. From replay value standpoint, like most games in this genre, you will beat it and can come back to it after six or twelve months, as its kind of a beat it and be done with it type.

What I really do hope for, is that this isn't the last we have seen of Merryn. The game is ripe for a sequel and can be expanded upon very easily. Hey, maybe Co-op? We have only explored five percent of the ocean after all, so the story can go any direction it wants and that is a great thing. If this is the last we see of Merryn then she has nothing to be ashamed of. Her well designed, fairy tale will delight all who dare Song of the Deep's depths.

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