Not much lies hidden beneath the waves

At this point in my gaming career, I’m more surprised when Insomniac Games doesn’t try something different. Whether it’s the over-the-top mayhem of Sunset Overdrive, the creepy atmosphere of VR games like Edge of Nowhere, taking on superhero projects like the new Spider-Man game, or just the insane weaponry in almost every other game they’ve made over the years, Insomniac is one studio that is never afraid to take risks. Unfortunately, not all of those risks turn into great games, and that happens to be the case with the latest step outside their comfort zone, a metroidvania called Song of the Deep.

Song of the Deep follows a little girl named Merryn whose fisherman father has been lost at sea. After having a vision of her father still being alive but trapped beneath the murky waters, Merryn realizes she’s the only one who can save him. She gets to work putting together the most rickety submarine you’ve ever seen, and unable to be deterred, Merryn plunges beneath the waves.

The story is a short but sweet one, and the need to help a loved one is an easily-relatable plight, lowering the bar of entry for anyone worried about playing as a 12-year-old girl—a definite step away from the norm in terms of gaming protagonists. Dynamic narration helps us get inside Merryn’s head by timely chiming in to help flesh out both the world and her thought process when she comes across points of interest or complex puzzles. Pace-slowing cutscenes are saved for only the most important of plot points, such as meeting key new characters. It all adds up to make our unlikely heroine a stronger character than you might expect.

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The world beneath the waves that Merryn discovers is in many ways as charming as the story itself. Ancient ruins, lost cities, mammoth caverns, and ship graveyards are rendered in bright, contrasting color schemes that make it seem as if you’re playing through a painting, and every locations tells a narrative all its own.

Song of the Deep’s beauty is only skin-deep, though. While swimming along the bottom of the beautiful, briny sea, you’ll quickly realize the world in Song of the Deep is much smaller than you’d expect from most metroidvanias. This torpedoes much of the exploration that typically comes in a game like that, and when you need new items to reach inaccessible areas, they’re often very close by. It felt like the game was forcing me through it as quick as can be, making this adventure come off as unusually linear. I never felt compelled to go back and explore areas I had already been to on my own, only ever backtracking during a couple of plot-related fetch quests. This led Song of the Deep to be one of the shortest metroidvanias I’ve ever played; even with collecting most of the items, my first playthrough barely clocked in at the five-hour mark.

I might have been able to forgive the scale of Song of the Deep if the gameplay inside that small world was the least bit interesting. That is not the case, however, as even in only a five-hour experience, I couldn’t have been more bored. In regards to the dangers Merryn will face under the sea, most of the enemies fall into one of four categories: jellyfish, urchins, anglerfish, or crustaceans. As you play, you’ll constantly run into them with only varying color schemes offering up any differentiation within species. The swim and shoot combat with these aquatic denizens quickly grew stale, and it wasn’t long before fighting enemies became a chore altogether. At a certain point, I came to prefer swimming quickly through an area to try to reach the next puzzle than bother fighting them. Even the game’s two bosses—yes, there are only two bosses in the entire game—were pushovers, only made slightly difficult by them flooding the screen with smaller enemies.

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The other major gameplay aspect of Song of the Deep is traversing its underwater world. While it was an interesting change being able to freely move in all directions in the submarine, it also felt slow and plodding most of the time unless I was boosting. I upgraded the sub’s boost speed first and foremost whenever I could, and even then I felt like I was often crawling along. This becomes especially evident with some barriers, where you’ll have to drag bombs to blow up otherwise impassible gateways. It took me forever to get the idea of the underwater physics right, trying to cruise along at the right speed to slingshot bombs with the sub’s grappling hook, and often blowing myself up instead.

Not all of the game’s puzzles or barriers deal with weird physics, however. In fact, the light-based puzzles in the game, where Merryn must leave the sub (made possible by another conveniently placed upgrade) and move mirrors to reflect different colors of light around several rooms were a lot of fun to figure out, while also providing an adequate challenge. If the game had more of those puzzles, I might’ve enjoyed myself more on the whole.

Song of the Deep is a very basic, paint-by-numbers metroidvania. It’s got some puzzles, combat, upgrades, and a tiny bit of backtracking, but it doesn’t do any of them particularly well. Where the game does shine at least is its endearing story and colorful world. If you’re desperately looking for a metroidvania fix, Song of the Deep might suffice, but there are so many better ones out there that should be played first that I’d only recommend it after exhausting all other options.

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Developer: Insomniac Games • Publisher: Insomniac Games, GameTrust • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 07.12.16
5.5
Song of the Deep isn’t a bad metroidvania; it’s just very basic. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, outside of maybe its endearing story, but it isn’t absolutely unplayable either.
The Good A nice story and some clever puzzles.
The Bad Repetitive enemies, lack of challenge, underwater gameplay needs refinement.
The Ugly Proof that it’s not better down where it’s wetter.
Song of the Deep is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Insomniac Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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