Song of the Deep PS4 Review
Publisher: GameStop Developer: Insomniac Games Genre: Adventure
Players: 1 Age Rating: 7+ Other console/handheld formats: Xbox One
The one thing that many players will think upon starting Song of the Deep is that it looks very inspired by SEGA’s Ecco the Dolphin, and whilst both do take place under the vast ocean, that is pretty much all that the two games have in common. Instead of a dolphin, Song of the Deep puts you in the shoes of a little girl called Merryn who goes deep-sea diving in search of her lost father, motoring a submarine and allowing players to admire in awe at the beautiful undersea graphics.
The graphics are definitely important to enhancing the experience of this game, one that encourages much exploration and so it is necessary that you are exploring an interesting and magical environment, something that Song of the Deep has done very well, at least for the most part. Whilst your main foes of the game, such as electrifying jellyfish, harpoon-shooting monsters and bomb-throwing anglerfish, are all present on-screen in the foreground, there is much animation that can be seen in the background also, with whales and sharks and all manner of undersea wildlife casually swimming by as all the action takes place in the forefront. In the background you can see ships that have long ago been sunk, and the way in which the background and foreground merge together makes the side-scrolling game look very vast, as though you could swim into the background. Coupled with soft, melodic music and Song of the Deep has a very calm ambience to it, making the underwater world feel very surreal and dreamlike.
The gameplay is based on exploration, with you taking control of a 3D submarine and working out how you get around. In some respects Song of the Deep gives you the illusion that you have the freedom to go wherever you want, though that is not strictly the case. Upon beginning the game, a lot of areas are blocked off and in order to access them, you need to move forward, aiming for the objectives. The gameplay can be quite comparable to a classic platformer, in the way that there is one specific goal, but you can still wander off to find hidden crevices with treasures. I must admit, initially I found myself floundering (pun intended) as I got to grips with how the game plays, feeling confused as to how some aspects of the environments work, such as statues that look like Moai statues, Oysters that are very picky eaters, how some doorways are opened and the way in which you are supposed to open some of the treasure chests that can be found. At first I found myself coming up against brick walls as I failed to realise that, in order to actually make any progress, the submarine very much needs upgrading. This is definitely a game that you can’t speed through, which is why I feel that, as much as the game encourages exploration, you can’t really go anywhere you would like, at least to begin with. One good tip is to try and find as many treasures as you possibly can in order to upgrade your little vehicle.
To upgrade you visit a hermit crab and buy parts that can be added to your submarine, making it more efficient and allowing for access to different areas, enabling you to explore further afield. In order to buy these parts, you find different treasures, with the primary currency being coins and any other type of treasures you find, such as jewels or trophies, being converted into coins that you can spend. You can also collect coins by defeating enemies. Upgrades to your submarine include enhancing the claw, which is used as a weapon and to pick up items of interest, increasing the length at which it can reach; adding more longevity to your boost, and reducing the time it takes for the cooling fan to…. cool, before you can use the boost again. As you progress, you’ll find upgrades for your vehicle, such as projectile weapons, and you can spend your coins on improving the efficiency of these also. Here, upgrading is essential in order for you to progress, and it is advised that you try to find as much treasure as you possibly can during the first half of the game, as the second part doesn’t offer much room for free-roaming…
And it is here where I felt the game took a bit of a downturn. The exploration and beautiful visuals from the first part of the game are replaced by constant puzzle-solving sections and bland, brown-reddish and purple hues, making the second half of the game feel quite the chore. At least in the first half of the game, even if you got stuck, at least you could still admire the majestic scenery. During this section you are tasked with making your way through a maze, with no option for you to wander around and explore at your own pace. This part is very linear, the only way being forward, and throws all kinds of obstacles your way, such as guiding a light through to a tower, using explosive barrels to open pathways, making your way around electrified fans, using your sonar ability to guide yourself through smoky areas. It’s an understatement to say that the tone of the game changes slightly, as that isn’t really the case at all, and this section seems to drag on and on. It is a huge let-down considering the magnificence of the first part of the game, and it really loses a lot of its magic when you reach this section. Of course, the story needs to progress, but it is a shame that it wasn’t done better, with puzzles being better paced; it’s certainly overwhelming after the steady pace of the first part. Yes, this tone is needed in order for the player to feel some kind of urgency to find Merryn’s father and get him out of such an environment, though the feeling it gives you is one of tediousness. Even the music changes here, the tone becoming hard and intense, adding to that sense of urgency and further decreasing that magical feeling. Perhaps this was made intending to contrast the first part of the game, though it is rather disappointing.
As mentioned there are enemies in the game, and this also includes a few bosses, though none that are particularly gruelling. Other enemies you’ll find include a mystical head that fires bombs at you (which you then proceed to hand back to the head by blowing them up in its face), canons that shoot missiles at you, sonars that will propel you into danger and a strange lightbeam that will lock-on to your submarine and prevent you from moving forward, allowing enemies to come for you – a little boost will free it from you. So not all enemies are the underwater wildlife. Alongside enemies, you’ll also come across some companions, friendly sea creatures that temporarily help you along during your adventure. With a lot of mixture to the gameplay, there’s certainly no complaints about the variation.
One aspect of the game that can be praised also is the story and the story-telling. The narrator has a lovely Irish accent and helps to make the story all the more appealing, almost as though they are reading you a bedtime story, just as Merryn’s father does for her. The cutscenes are shown as beautifully-rendered, hand drawn-like images with some simple animation and it more than sets up the tone for the game, making you feel as though you, alongside Merryn, are about to undertake an arduous adventure. The story and accompanying cutscenes, simple as they may be, about a young girl trying to find her father, is certainly captivating and told in an equally alluring way, managing with ease to hold your interest.
As well as motoring the submarine, during parts of the game you can also control Merryn herself, swimming freely in the environment, with her diminutive size enabling you to swim through sections you can’t reach with the submarine, allowing you to get to previously unreachable treasures. That is the crux of the game, to move forward and find all these new ways and means to get around which then allows you to go back and access areas you couldn’t before. It took me a little while to grasp that concept, and this adds yet another layer of variety to the gameplay, shaking things up and allowing you to do something a bit different. Throughout the first half of the game, you’ll be going back and forwards quite a bit as more areas are unlocked, though thankfully there are warp holes that act as fast travel. Tyne Wells are where you save your game, and regain your health and energy so it’s always useful keeping in mind where the closest one is to you at all times, to take advantage.
To help you find your way around, you do have a handy map, which shows the different locations, where certain items and treasures are (which you would think negates the need for exploration, but as mentioned it is very much about the progression in order to access these treasures later), where certain barriers are that you need to get through, the warp holes and Tyne Wells, and where the shop is. The map also shows your current location, though it is not always very accurate, and shows you where your next objective is. The map has been well-designed and you can manoeuvre the camera about freely so you can plan where you want to go.
So, despite the lull towards the end of the game and the frustrations at the start whilst getting to grips with how the game works, once you get into it, you’ll find it difficult to stop playing Song of the Deep, wanting to come back for more, at least during the first half. There’s a certain addictiveness to trying to find as much treasure as you can and, during the first half of the game, the graphics will pull you straight in to the environment, with so much activity going on in both the foreground and background. The graphics in this game certainly give games like the Trine series a run for its money, and they are truly astonishing and awe-inspiring. However, the reality is that Song of the Deep can feel rather linear and the second half of the game truly brings it down, making you feel very constricted as to what you can actually do and needing to progress forward in order to then go back and access other areas limiting your freedom somewhat, this being especially true during the second half of the game where it is forward all the way. Despite its sore points, Song of the Deep has still no less been excellently designed, with enchanting cutscenes and an articulately narrated story.