As culture continues to change and evolve, it’s refreshing to see more projects tackle issues of mental health. Years ago, such topics would have been brushed aside or used for schlocky reasons. Depression, anxiety, and grief affect millions of people, and it’s important to talk about them, or at least, it’s important to me — this is coming from someone who has, and continues, to deal with these issues. This is why I was instantly drawn to Sea of Solitude when it was unveiled at E3 2018.
Considering their reputation, the fact that this small project was published by Electronic Arts still remains surprising. The EA Originals program has brought a handful of small-scale projects to the masses, but none quite like this. Developed by Jo-Mei Games, and based around a traumatic break-up creative director Cornelia Geppert went through, Sea of Solitude is emotionally heavy. It stands in stark contrast to pretty much any other effort form the mega-publisher.
You control Kay, a young monster-like woman who awakens on a boat with little memory as to how she got there. Trapped in a city that has been submerged underwater, she is almost instantly besieged by a pair of horrible creatures and must find a way to make it past. However, while they may cause plenty of physical pain, it’s the emotional attacks they inflict on our heroine that prove to be the most challenging to overcome.
Taking on everything from toxic relationships to bullying, Sea of Solitude is designed to put the player through the wringer — if you have ever had to deal with any of these problems before, it definitely achieves what it sets out to do. It’s a thoughtful depiction of the power relationships hold, and what it means when you damage them. The main issue that hinders the story, though, is the script itself. Whether it was due to translation issues or its lack of subtlety, the script doesn’t always work in the way it needs to, making powerful moments fall flat in an unfortunate way.
With most of the city submerged underwater, you’ll spend a lot of time traveling in your boat. It’s certainly the safest way to travel, as a monster lurking beneath the surface is intent on gobbling Kay up. Steering the ship is simple, and it’s easy enough to get from one place to another. It can get a tad boring, though, as you don’t really do much else in it. You clear out corruption in a few sections, but that’s still just a case of sitting and holding down a button. Additional variety would have been nice to see.
Corruption is found everywhere, though, so Kay will frequently have to leave her ship in order to clear it. These sections play out like your standard 3D platformer. Kay can move around surprisingly well and can scamper up buildings in order to reach new sections. She can even fire off a flare that will help point her in the direction she needs to go. Beware, though, as if she enters certain parts of the water without her boat, the monster will quickly follow. Unfortunately, she’ll need to do so in order to press forward.
As the plot of Sea of Solitude progresses, Kay will encounter smaller, more annoying monsters. First appearing at the mid-point of the first story arc, these little guys prove to be one of the more troublesome obstacles you’ll have to deal with. Kay has no means of self-defense or attack, so she has to maneuver around them. These sections don’t really constitute stealth-action either, as the aforementioned monster will pretty much always know where you are. It all boils down to running around until you can eventually make a break for wherever you are headed.
The platforming never evolves into anything special. Even when you’re playing keep-a-way, it never grows into something with variety. The opening moments of gameplay don’t really change, and you’ll end up doing the same thing all the way until Sea of Solitude‘s end. This could work if there was a unique gimmick to toy around with, but when it is just traditional 3D platforming, it begins to bore, even when you consider how short the title is.
It’s a shame that the gameplay is as bland as it is, as Sea of Solitude is unique in every other way. It didn’t take long to fall in love with the art style, particularly the character designs. Kay has a great look that successfully depicts the troubled girl inside the beast. The other creatures you come across, both good and bad, are equally memorable. Even the little goons that push Kay around have a mysterious, haunting look. The environments could have used some additional detail, but it’s still an all-around fresh aesthetic. The voice acting seems different compared to Sea of Solitude‘s contemporaries. It’s extremely heartfelt, and I get a distinct feeling that it was recorded using amateur voice actors. Sometimes that heightens the story beats, and other times it emphasizes the awkward script. You got to take the good with the bad, I guess.
Still, I appreciate Sea of Solitude for what it sets out to do. It tells a tough, bruising tale of emotional distress, and it’s important that such topics continue to get treated with respect within the industry. However, when it comes to sitting down to play it, I’m a little more apprehensive. There’s nothing objectively terrible about the platforming or sailing, but it never tries to be anything other than serviceable, with the plot clearly taking precedence over the gameplay. That’s one way to craft an experience, but the approach can still be criticized for not trying hard enough. Regardless, I’m glad Jo-Mei Games got to make what they wanted to — I just feel that it didn’t quite live up to its full potential.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Electronic Arts.
Sea of Solitude boasts an abundance of heart, and has a genuinely great look, but the gameplay struggles to rise above anything other than basic.