Review: Song of the Deep

If you were to take a poll of a host of average gamers about what type of game they thought GameStop’s new publishing arm, GameTrust, would throw its name behind first, exactly zero people would describe Song of the Deep. In fact, Song of the Deep is about as far away from the bombastic, testosterone-laden world of AAA games that line GameStop’s shelves that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that this is GameTrust’s first published title altogether. Insomniac Games has created a touching underwater metroidvania title featuring a girl looking for her father, and if this is the type of thing that we’re going to be seeing more of from GameTrust, then this new endeavor for GameStop might not be the flaming disaster some predicted it would be. Song of the Deep is by no means a perfect game, as it has some obvious flaws in its combat and campaign structure, but its heartwarming story and unique take on the metroidvania genre allow it to stand out as a solid entry.

Song of the Deep stars an endearing young girl named Merryn whose simple life by the sea brings her absolute joy on a daily basis. Merryn typically waits on a cliff by her house for her father to return from sea every evening, but she’s alarmed when he fails to return from one of his voyages. Instead of sitting idle, she crafts a rickety submarine out of materials around her residence and sets off into the depths to find her lost dad. It’s hard not to get behind Merryn’s motivations, and the fact that every cutscene is presented in the style of a gorgeous storybook, complete with omniscient narration that extends out to the gameplay, makes Song of the Deep feel like the type of story your parents would read you before bedtime in your younger years. Along the way, Merryn makes a whole host of adorable aquatic friends and learns about some mysterious tragedies that befell the world below the surface. Aside from its beautiful art, Song of the Deep‘s best attribute is its narrative. It’s not the type of story that’s going to blow your mind, but it’s deeply heartwarming and can both pull at your heartstrings and bring a smile to your face. Then again, if you’re the type of person who’d hate a tale about a young girl who would travel to the ends of the Earth to save her dad, then you likely have bigger issues than whether or not you’d like a metroidvania title from Insomniac.

Most metroidvania titles revolve around some combination of platforming and combat, so to take the first element completely out of the equation presents an interesting dilemma. Make no mistake, Song of the Deep is a metroidvania game through and through, with progress gating based on finding new gadgets for your submarine playing a major role. Because there’s obviously no way to platform with a submarine, Song of the Deep‘s gameplay revolves around maneuvering around underwater reefs and wreckage, avoiding perilous obstacles, using gadgets to defeat enemies and solving a whole host of environmental puzzles. In general, the puzzle-solving here ranges from outstanding to awkward and cumbersome, and this inconsistency in puzzle quality is one of Song of the Deep‘s more damning elements. About halfway through the five-to-six hour campaign, Merryn is tasked with manipulating colored lights by hopping in and out of her submarine. 2016 has had some of the best puzzle-solving of the generation, with Inside and The Witness standing out as particularly excellent, and this section’s mind-boggling creativity approaches the high level of these two outstanding titles. Sadly, this outstanding section comes and goes without any sort of momentum, with Song of the Deep largely focusing on smaller barrel-moving puzzles and other fairly simplistic brain-teasers. These lesser puzzles not only commit the frustrating sin of having an obvious solution that’s often difficult to execute because of hit-or-miss physics, but they also lack the creativity of that iconic light-puzzle sequence. There’s never a moment where Song of the Deep feels flat-out bad, but there’s enough clunk in some of the simpler puzzles to leave certain players shaking their heads.

Whereas Song of the Deep‘s puzzle solving has some high points, its combat is pretty much always a slog. Insomniac definitely deserves some credit for making submarine combat more than one note, but a lack of enemy variety and a late-game reliance on wave-based monster closets make every combat encounter more and more grating. Merryn’s submarine is equipped with three types of torpedoes (electricity, ice and magma) that she gains throughout the campaign, as well as a claw that can both grab items and be used as a close-range melee weapon. While certain enemies, such as larger crabs that must attack to reveal a weakpoint, require a bit of planning, most enemies can be defeated through a combination of button spamming and occasional boosting to reposition the sub. It’s worth noting that combat can be completely broken by purchasing a perk that generates more health pickups through magma torpedo kills, thus generally negating the need to maneuver around a given battle arena. Boss battles, while interesting from a spectacle point of view, largely amount to defeating waves of the same enemies you’ve been encountering before executing a pretty obvious gimmick maneuver a handful of times. Song of the Deep‘s combat isn’t bad, by any means, but it feels so uninspired at times that most players will be able to blast through a battle without thinking too much.

Despite being a relatively short game, Song of the Deep‘s overworld is actually fairly large. Players will have to go through a fair amount of backtracking before encountering the final boss, and while this often feels like an excuse to extend out playtime, there’s definitely something nice about going back to a previous area with a host of new tools. From the ability to use each type of torpedo to destroy certain types of walls, all the way to using sonar pulses to flip switches and destroy glass, Insomniac has done a great job in establishing a constant sense of progress despite the large amount of backtracking to be done. If you’re the type of player that loves wandering around the world and clearing the map of all its secrets, fear not, as Song of the Deep is absolutely loaded with hidden treasures. While almost all of these hidden items are merely large chunks of currency that players can use to purchase new abilities, there are certain pickups that can either increase Merryn’s health or torpedo energy. Granted, players who loved Axiom Verge are going to be a bit disappointed with the quality of secret collectibles, fans of, say, Ori and the Blind Forest will feel right at home with these elements. One bummer though: after rolling Song of the Deep‘s credits, players are plopped right back at the save point before the final boss, though this makes sense in the context of the ending.

If you haven’t noticed from the screenshots in this review, Song of the Deep is absolutely gorgeous. It isn’t on the level of the aforementioned Ori and the Blind Forest in terms of sheer beauty, but then again that title has an argument for the best looking 2D video game of all time. From detailed backgrounds to flowing aquatic flora, Song of the Deep really finds a way to make the bottom of the ocean a magical place. Even though there isn’t a great deal of enemy variety on display, every foe stands out as memorable thanks to the power of good art design. Nowhere is Song of the Deep more gorgeous than in a certain peaceful area that appears around two-thirds of the way through the campaign. If you’re looking for some pretty staggering foreground-background contrast, look no further than this section. Fair warning though: the console version of Song of the Deep does have some pretty notable framerate issues, with save wells causing multi-second hitches and especially chaotic sections dropping the framerate below thirty frames-per-second. If you have the ability to pick this one up on PC, you’re best suited avoiding the technical follies found on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Closing Comments:

Song of the Deep could have been downright outstanding, but there’s enough flaws here to bump it back down into the realm of simply good. If you’re looking for a title with a touching story and gorgeous art-design, you could do a lot worse than Insomniac’s underwater metroidvania adventure. From some lackluster puzzles in the beginning and the end of the campaign to combat that generally feels mundane, Song of the Deep falls short of greatness in enough ways to warrant a slight bit of disappointment. Still, GameTrust is actually off to a surprisingly good start with a title that feels completely unlike anything that gamers would guess GameStop would put its name behind. What’s more, 2016 has been surprisingly devoid of decent metroidvania titles after 2015 gave us two bangers in Axiom Verge and Ori and the Blind Forest, so if you have that type of itch, then scratch away.

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