Review: Song of the Deep

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You know Insomniac Games for its countless AAA blockbusters, from Ratchet & Clank and Spyro the Dragon to Resistance and Sunset Overdrive. Song of the Deep is more of an indie-like experience from the studio of sleep deprived videogame makers, published by GameStop under the retail chain’s fledgling GameTrust Games publishing label. If these are the types of experiences we’re going to get from GameTrust moving forward, I’m totally on board.

Song of the Deep is an enchanting Metroidvania adventure about a young girl named Merryn, who builds a submarine and sets out on a journey to rescue her beloved father after he fails to return home from a fishing trip and she dreams has been lost beneath the sea. Coupled with the storybook presentation, actress Siobhán Hewlett’s empowering narration, performed in cutscenes and during live play to contextualize events and background scenery as they are encountered, brings the narrative to life with strong emotional depth. As Merryn explores the lovely sea gardens, ancient ruins, dark and eerie tunnels of an underwater spider’s lair, and enchanting glowkelp forests she’d only ever heard about from her father’s fantastical bedtime stories, a captivating soundtrack adds notes of wonder and mystery, creating an atmosphere of relaxation with just the right amount of suspense to capture the imagination while keeping you on edge about what might be lurking in the watery depths.

As fans of the genre have come to expect, Song of the Deep‘s gameplay is an equal balance of combat, non-linear exploration, and puzzle solving. Merryn’s submarine glides through the water with smooth and responsive buoyancy–not too drifty or floaty, as is a potential problem for underwater games–armed with a magnetic claw, multiple types of torpedoes, searchlights, a sonar device, and boost jets, which are obtained and upgraded throughout to open up new interactions as well as previously inaccessible areas on the map as the adventure progresses. With the magnetic claw, you are able to melee strike hostile sea creatures, tug on chain-pull switches, open trapdoors and treasure chests, latch onto anchor points to hang tight against powerful currents, and lift objects like bombs, to plant next to destructible barriers, or seashells, to launch at enemies. Torpedoes are Merryn’s primary ranged weapon, with elemental magma and ice properties expanding the combat and puzzle-solving repertoire. The sonar comes in quite handy on multiple fronts, as a means to knock out incoming projectiles or ping the environment for a momentary visualization of the map boundaries so you can detect any nearby secret pathways.

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Combat encounters fall into the usual rhythm of moving into a new area where enemies spawn in and attack in waves, and there’s a solid variety of weapons and creature types to keep things interesting. Some of the later battles become somewhat overbearing, but on the normal difficulty the game poses a fun, fair challenge. Though they look impressive and menacing, the boss battles are kind of a letdown, both in how few there are and that they don’t really utilize the game’s array of gadgets and mechanics in inventive ways. The final boss in particular was surprising in how simple it was.

One particular section of the game did drive me completely bonkers though. There’s this seriously annoying area later on that first involves stealthy descending down a pitch black cave guarded by red devil squid that insta-kill you on sight. I got through this area on sheer luck by repeatedly charging through until eventually none of the squid saw me. Shortly after this is another area where you have to escape through a series of trapped tunnels while more of the squid give chase. The annoying thing with this is the way the squid are able to suck you in from distance. About three or four times, I made it all the way through the chase and got right up to the final escape point only for a squid to magically suck me back into its tentacles from across the finish line.

The puzzles on the other hand are well thought out challenges of the brains and reflexes. The simpler obstacles involve safely towing volatile water mines through narrow paths, pulling a switch and then racing through the door it opened around the corner before it slams shut, or reassembling broken statue switches by finding and stacking the pieces in the proper order. As the puzzles become more complex, you’ll have to guide metal bombs passed electrified barriers and rotating turbines, using the ice and magma torpedoes to block off the electric currents or freeze the orbs so that they temporarily float so they can be safely pushed over hazards that will cause them to explode. A diving suit upgrade eventually opens up the opportunity to exit the submarine and freely swim around as Merryn herself, which opens up additional puzzle possibilities involving reflective laser circuits or using the sub in concert with Merryn’s ability to swim in order to weigh down pressure plates or keep resistance on a chain lever so she can move forward to the next location. (And thankfully there’s a helpful mechanic to hold down a button to have Merryn automatically teleport back to her submarine, in case you get stuck or don’t feel like retracing your steps.) A standout location near the end takes place inside this sort of Rubik’s Cube of a puzzle environment that shifts around as you solve each configuration of switches and laser reflectors.

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The seamlessly interconnected world map is quite large (above is a screenshot I took of the whole map once I reached the end), laid out with an abundance of secret rooms and mini-puzzles hiding fragments to increase health and energy as well as the valuable treasures needed to purchase submarine upgrades from the hermit crab shopkeeper. The map interface is clearly keyed so treasures, items, gates, checkpoints, and quest objectives are easily identifiable. For the most part the pace of unlocking new gadgets and uncovering new areas of the map is spot on. A couple moments creep up where you have to backtrack through old areas to collect three thingamajigs to activate or repair something. It’s nice that these moments can be done in any order; however, ultimately they do feel like fetch quest busy work. Fortunately, warp vortexes allow for quick travel to key locations around the map, minimizing, though not eliminating, the need to backtrack over long distances. I needed a little more than seven hours to beat the game (I bought all sub upgrades but still have quite a few treasures and hull fragments left unfound), and very little of that time felt like filler. And for those wondering, yes, once the end boss is defeated the final continue point can be reloaded so you can go for 100% achievements and collectibles.

It should come as no great surprise that Insomniac Games has yet again created a gem of a game. It may not have the budget or scale of their usual productions, but the studio’s ability to craft fun and engaging experiences with eye-popping visual flair, creative mechanics, and a finely tuned attention to detail shines through all the same. Playing as a submarine in an underwater setting brings a refreshing flavor to an increasingly saturated Metroidvania genre, while the endearing storybook presentation powers a touching story about the unbreakable bond of love between a father and daughter, as well as the courage to push on against seemingly insurmountable odds.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Heartwarming storybook narrative (Siobhán Hewlett’s narration is wonderful!)
+ Fun mix of submarine combat, exploration, and puzzle solving
+ Large, non-linear, visually stunning underwater world to explore
+ Beautiful soundtrack captures the mystery and wonder of the ocean

Cons:
– Lackluster bosses
– Screw you, insta-kill devil squid!

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available on PS4 and Xbox One
Publisher: GameTrust Games
Developer: Insomniac Games
Release Date: 7/12/2016
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: Steam, PlayStation Store, or Xbox Games Store for $14.99.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!