I am terrified of the sea.
As in, absolutely petrified.
I can’t nail it down to one particular reason either. Yes, the fear of drowning is a potent one certainly, but there’s more to it than that. The sea is so vast, so uncontrollable and teaming with beasties that could, and indeed probably would, tear me to pieces at a mere moment’s notice.
Thus, the sea would seem a perfect setting for what is becoming a very popular genre in modern video gaming, that being the “putting a child in a dangerous and unsettling world where they spend vast parts of the game in mortal danger” genre, as popularised by games such as Limbo.
It would be unfair to typecast Song of the Deep in just that vein though, as it also liberally milks the “Metroidvania” genre just as much. As someone who isn’t really a dedicated player of the Metroid or Castlevania series, some of the nuances of this particular game may have been lost on me, but it seems to fit the general bullet points of what a game in this style is supposed to be. You have your large, interconnected map, with certain areas cut off at first until you improve your character through upgrades. In this case, advancement in the game will depend on how efficiently you develop your rickety submarine, built by the game’s protagonist Merryn.
The story is simple enough, even if it does require a fair bit of suspension of disbelief for it to get off the ground. Merryn lives with her sailor father and waits for him every day on a cliff edge with a candle to guide him home. However, one day her father does not return, and Merryn is tortured by a dream of her father and his boat getting dragged into the deep waters of the ocean. Determined to save her father from supposed watery doom, Merryn builds herself a submarine and dives into the deep waters to bring her father home.
Of course, the big disconnect here is how Merryn, a 12-year-old sailor’s daughter with seemingly no knowledge of underwater sea traversing, is suddenly able to build not only a submarine, but a submarine capable of firing energy blasts and containing a fully functional sonar/radar to boot!
Yes, I know this is a game primarily focused at a younger audience, but that’s a pretty big narrative leap the game wants us to take straight out of the gate. Could they have not put something in there that explained how Merryn was a budding mechanic or had a brilliant young mind or something? Because up until her dad not returning home (and I’m not thoroughly convinced that he didn’t just sneak off to the bookie on the quiet and got back 5 minutes after Merryn left), there’s literally no inkling that she’d be even remotely capable of building this submarine.
However, perhaps I’m just being a big old meanie who’s just being mean? At the end of the day, this is supposed to be escapism, and there’s nothing younger audiences like more than someone they can live vicariously through, and seeing the main character build a pretty nifty underwater machine is bound to excite and delight them in equal measure.
And once the game starts, it does a lot of stuff really well. Controlling the submarine is simple enough, and after you get past the first little section, you unlock a hook shot at the front that operates as your initial weapon and also as a way to open doors and move objects. As you creep ever further onward on your quest to find Merryn’s father, you will be able to buy boosters which assist you in areas with heavy tides, and eventually you get your hands on the earlier mentioned energy blast which allows you to blow apart walls that previously blocked your progress.
The game itself is relatively straightforward. An item appears on the map that you need to get in order to move on to the next section, so you get the item, hit the next story beat, and repeat. As someone who has no problem whatsoever with linear-style gaming like this, I found this enjoyable enough, and I enjoyed exploring the different areas in the game.
The graphics are impressive, and combined with the excellent soundtrack, some areas have a real weight to them. The creepy “Merrows” in particular are dark, foreboding, and genuinely quite unnerving, so much so that I actually rushed through them as they were making me feel uneasy. Other areas though are bright and colourful with incredible detail in the background. For instance, if you pay attention, you’ll be able to see big sea creatures such as whales and sharks pass by with not undue grace. This all combines to give the game a defined and powerful atmosphere throughout. This is supplemented by the excellent narration of Siobhan Hewlett, which I personally really enjoyed and felt added a lot to the game.
Exploring this wonderful world and solving puzzles is enjoyable stuff, but unfortunately the game ends up crowbarring needless combat into the game in the form of annoying jellyfish and glowfish that swarm you whenever you enter a new area. Rather than being a fun change of pace, these battles quickly become tiresome, and they sapped a lot of the enjoyment out of the game for me. I would have much preferred Insomniac Games to have done away with combat entirely outside of boss fights and go with the exploring side of things more. You can be enjoying the scenery and really getting lost in the world, but once the jellyfish show up it immediately takes you out of everything, and you have to get back to the grind once more.
I can understand that maybe they thought that the younger crowd would get bored if there wasn’t a fight every 5 minutes, but I think that does a disservice to younger players. Certainly in my younger days, I would have appreciated a game that did things a little differently. It strikes me that there’s a definite niche here that Insomniac passed up the chance to exploit. The important fact is that the exploring is enjoyable, the puzzle solving is fun, and the boss battles with creatures like a giant, underwater spider (no, I don’t know what it’s doing there either, but it looks pretty cool nonetheless) are an enjoyable slice of something different. Ultimately, I think Insomniac didn’t have enough faith in its core audience to enjoy the game without the requisite slew of generic baddies for them to kill along the way, and I find that somewhat disappointing.
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: GameTrust Games/GameStop
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 12th July 2016