Growing up, I was unnerved by levels in games that took place underwater. Labyrinth Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog, Jolly Roger Bay from Super Mario 64 and even Coral Capers from Donkey Kong Country gave me the willies. There’s just something about being trapped below the surface that creeps me out. Fortunately, I’ve managed to move past this fear as I’ve grown older. If I didn’t, I probably would have had severe palpitations exploring the aquatic world of Song of the Deep.
Developed by Insomniac Games, best known for their explosive Ratchet & Clank franchise, Song of the Deep is a smaller adventure from the studio. In the game, players take control of a young girl by the name of Merryn. After her beloved fisherman father goes missing while out on a trip, Merryn crafts a submarine in order to search for him. Visions have kept hope alive for her that he’s still out there somewhere, and the trip down to the darkest depths of the ocean will let her see that there’s more truth to her dad’s tall tales than she thought.
The search for a lost loved one isn’t the most original storytelling trope, but the way Insomniac Games presents the tale is what makes it worth paying attention to. Told mostly through storybook-styled cutscenes, the story is an ethereal take on love and loss. If anything, it best resembles the type of fairy tales that Merryn’s father would have told her before bed. The enchanting narration by theater actor Siobhan Hewlett only helped me get further swept up into this satisfying story. The emotional resonance found here is also notable, to me anyway, because the last title I played from the developer was the more-comedy driven Sunset Overdrive.
The massive ocean Merryn is exploring lends itself well to the Metroidvania gameplay Song of the Deep has. Like any good entry in the genre, the title lets players explore a massive map filled with secrets, upgrades and currency. It’s open world to a degree, as most of the areas in the game are blocked off until you unlock additional power-ups and abilities. A path may be blocked by jellyfish, which can only be moved through the headlights you acquire later on. Or another example would be a glass tube that can only be destroyed when you unlock a new type of missile. The rampant backtracking feels a little egregious by the end of the game, but traversing the sea is satisfying enough that it didn’t really bug me too much.
Where Song of the Deep truly shines, though, is when you’re solving the many puzzles the game presents to you. Some of these riddles are only hiding buried treasure and upgrades, but the more intricate ones are necessary to solve. One of the more memorable challenges comes about halfway through the story, and has players guide colored beams of light to different locations. You’ll need to not only use the abilities of the submarine, but also the dagger Merryn wields outside of the ship in order to deflect light. It’s a fairly complicated challenge that makes use of all of the powers you have at your disposal. Really, all of the major brain-teasers Insomniac Games created do a good job of integrating the vast assortment of abilities you have.
Despite the laid back narrative, combat also plays a heavy role here. Merryn’s ship has several tools to fight off the various aquatic enemies you come across, as it comes outfitted with a claw, which can be used to both kill foes and grab items. As you progress, you’ll also come across different torpedo upgrades. The standard missile will be familiar to most, while fire and ice rockets provide a different type of attack. By the time you reach the final boss, you’ll have plenty of ways to survive the battle.
The combat is fine in short doses, but as you reach the latter portions of the game, it really begins to grate. A vast majority of the final sections in Song of the Deep stick you in small rooms and flood the location with enemies of all sorts and sizes. It’s bland, frustrating padding that really highlight the minor frustrations that come with floaty controls. It would have been more interesting if Insomniac Games gave you a few enemies to battle, but made you think of creative ways to take them out. Spamming enemies and giving me nothing new to use is just lazy game design.
I already mentioned the enchanting cutscenes, but the graphics as a whole in Song of the Deep are captivating. The ship design is adorable, and the few allies you come across are equally delightful. I could have used a little more variety in the enemy department, as there are a lot of palette swaps, but the few here are decent enough. What really stands out, though, are the areas Merryn explores. They are filled with details in the foreground and background, and have an air of mystery to them that fits the narrative. The soothing soundtrack also makes exploration a task I had no qualms doing.
Going into Song of the Deep, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m a huge fan of Insomniac Games, but this appeared to be such a departure from their most recent output. Shortly into it though, though, my fears were soon put to rest. The Burbank-based studio has crafted an intriguing adventure that pairs an engaging storyline with solid gameplay mechanics. Even in the face of a weak end-game act, I enjoyed my time exploring the deepest depths of the ocean. I may still be weary of going underwater, but I’m more than wiling to take the plunge with Merryn.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of the title.
Shaky conclusion aside, Song of the Deep is a narrative rich adventure that successfully pairs Metroidvania gameplay with a dynamic underwater setting.