Insomniac Games’ Song of the Deep tells the story of a young girl in search of her father who went missing on a fishing trip. Though the game attempts to mirror the scope of the ambitious journey, it can’t decide if it wants to be adventurous or introspective and ends up somewhere in the middle. The main arc is a fragment of what it should be, while underutilized gameplay elements and a slow pace bog down the experience.
One of the key issues with the underwater Metroidvania game is the story, or lack thereof. A beautifully animated opening cinematic reveals the strong relationship between 12-year old Merryn and her soon-to-be misplaced father, but any succeeding narrative moments fail to replicate that initial magic. In fact, there are barely any segments that push the story along, to the point that it’s easy to forget why Merryn is under the sea in the first place.
It’s a shame considering the heartbreaking separation of the characters. Merryn shows less emotion as the game progresses, and doesn’t even seem to acknowledge many of the events happening around her. She’s courageous, but that’s about it, and that shouldn’t negate the rest of her personality. It’s great to see a game with a 12-year old girl as the protagonist, but Merryn never really behaves like a 12-year old, and the result is a character that lacks depth and authenticity.
There aren’t any other noteworthy characters to pick up the emotional slack. The enemies are mindless sea creatures, while any supporting entities, such as a friendly seahorse and a merrow maiden named Cara, only appear a few times throughout the story. There’s a disappointing lack of character development in both the supplementary characters and Merryn.
The story ends up feeling like a missed opportunity. The motivations are shallow, and Merryn’s journey becomes one-dimensional from an outside perspective. Interactions between strong individuals could have given the game as much depth as the deep sea it takes place in, but the game never capitalizes on the potential. The balance between movement and quiet, story-driven moments just feels off, with too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Some minor tasks can take up to an hour to complete, which leaves little time to develop the narrative.
That might not be a problem if the gameplay was more fun. Traversing the map in a submarine is easy enough, but new mechanics, such as projectiles and environment puzzles, are added at an alarming rate. The overabundance of gameplay elements means that ideas are forgotten quickly. Although most return later in the game, it rarely gives you the thrill of mastering a new ability. The puzzles are either too simple or difficult – which is frustrating either way – and collecting hidden treasures doesn’t add any meaningful challenge. Despite a direct callback to some classic NES titles, the feeling of those games is never fully replicated.
The game also stretches a few key tasks over a long period of time. As a result, the pacing feels slow, and at times it feels like the game is hiding a lack of content. The setup tricks you into thinking it’ll eventually lead to something bigger, but that something never comes. Instead, it results in more monotonous tasks that amount to nothing. When a big event does eventually occur, there’s a lack of payoff due to the frustrating pace.
There are a few things that Song of the Deep does right. The underwater setting is vibrant and alive, and the scenery bursts with a wide range of colours. Sunken ships imply life above the water, and make you wonder about other events that may have occurred. It can be beautiful to see, and sometimes you’ll want to put the gameplay on hold in order to examine the detail of the world.
With that said, the sightseeing speaks to the game’s lack of urgency. When concentrating on the environment is more important than saving the life of a loved one, there’s a major issue. Gorgeous visuals are a nice to have, but a good sense of progression is a must.
Overall, the game’s positive aspects are overshadowed by its many faults, and an engaging story is stretched too thin due to the exhausting gameplay. Song of the Deep has a solid foundation, but it feels like the development team took a half-measure approach to design, making the game without committing to any one element in particular. It’s unfortunate that a game that seems like it should be a passion project ends up feeling so lifeless when it’s over.