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Usually, when I ask people what their least favorite level in any given game, the answer I get is “the water level.” From Ocarina of Time’s water temple to Super Mario Bros. World 2-2, no one seems to like water.
So it comes across as something of a ballsy move when Insomniac, of Ratchet & Clank fame, decides to make a game that takes place entirely underwater.
Song of the Deep is an action-adventure game starring Merryn, a young girl whose dad goes missing on a fishing excursion. Not one to just cry in bed all night, Merryn takes matters into her own hands and builds a whole damn submarine from scratch to search the water depths herself.
Song of the Deep styles itself as a Metroidvania-style adventure game. This explains its labyrinthine level design and the plethora of upgrades that you collect along the way to find your dad. As Merryn, you will explore twisting underwater caverns and the booby-trapped ruins of submarine civilizations. As you do, you will find random scraps to upgrade your submarine with as well as a hermit crab that will be happy to upgrade your upgrades for a price.
There is a heavy emphasis on exploration, puzzles, and a fair amount of combat. The exploration feels wondrous as you travel between vibrantly detailed zones. The puzzles feel innovative and challenging. The combat – well the combat could definitely use some work.
The vastness of the sea quickly begins to feel much less vast after encountering the same enemies over and over again. After the thousandth or so encounter with the same jellyfish, anglerfish, and spike-shooting-ball-thingies that take progressively more hits to kill, the whole combat thing starts to feel repetitive. Which is a shame, since shooting the different types of torpedoes you collect feels strangely satisfying. At least, it does when they go where you want them to.
The controls in Song of the Deep are a little hit-and-miss. Putt-putting around in your little submarine feels smooth and oddly therapeutic. Shooting torpedoes and attacking with your claw-thing feels good too, but there tend to be moments where they refuse to shoot where you’re aiming. The controls (when using a controller) were particularly finicky when trying to choose between torpedoes and while using Merryn to reflect light for the laser puzzles.
Song of the Deep features a whopping two whole bosses throughout the game. It’s hard to tell whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, though. On one hand, they break up the monotony created by the other enemies, but on the other, both bosses suck. The first one is a giant goddamn spider, because giant spiders are both completely original and fit in an underwater environment. The second boss is actually the final boss, but that really stretches the use of the word. All it really does is sit in the background and spawn a swarm of the same enemies you’ve been fighting all game before moving close enough for you to rip its face off.
Really, this is a game that focuses all of its attention on presentation rather than mechanical ingenuity and compelling gameplay. The underwater world in Song of the Deep looks mysterious and pretty. This game shines brightest when it’s trying to show off its life and architecture. The aquatic plant and animal life fill some of the areas out nicely to make the game feel truly alive. Unfortunately, that life shows up rarely, and when it does, it usually has little to do with the actual gameplay.
For example, one zone called The Maw has massive sharks and whales and other cool-looking fish-life swimming around in a background big enough to do the zone justice. Those fish are only there to look pretty, though. I quickly wished that they would just jump to the foreground.
Fortunately, Song of the Deep lives up to at least half of its name by providing a great soundtrack. The calm, mysterious ambience provided by the music is probably one of this game’s greatest saving grace. Travel and puzzle-solving make up the majority of the game, so a soundtrack that doesn’t suck is a godsend. There’s not a huge amount of variance to the music, but it certainly does not suck.
Song of the Deep may not be a terrible game, but it does lack a certain amount of depth. There are a fair amount of halfway decent puzzles, but that hardly makes up for the repetitive and boring combat. The story is cute, but it isn’t especially noteworthy. It is presented entirely by narration, which gives it a certain lifelessness in spite of the quality of the narrator’s voice. The boss fights are a joke. Everything hinges on the presentation of the underwater world. However when the gameplay falls as flat as this does, that presentation becomes meaningless in the end. By the end of the game, all I wanted was to break to the surface for some fresh air.