|Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One|
|Developer Insomniac Games|
|Release Date Jul 12, 2016|
Song of the Deep is a somewhat stranger occurrence than its simple appearance would suggest.
It's an experiment of sorts for developer Insomniac Games, best known for the Ratchet and Clank series on the PlayStation consoles — and also responsible for the criminally over-looked Sunset Overdrive. Song of the Deep is a simpler 2D game from a studio who hasn't ventured into that space since 2012's Outernauts. But more interestingly, it marks one of the first games published by GameTrust, the boutique publishing initiative from games retailer GameStop.
It's somewhat strange that the retail behemoth's opening foray into publishing is a story about a little girl searching for her dad in a homemade submarine, but here we are. Song of the Deep makes a wonderful, heartfelt first impression. But a lack of polish and a derailing sense of identity crisis later on keep Insomniac's newest game from being something really special.
A sense of wonder helps Song of the Deep punch above its weight
Song of the Deep opens as young girl Merryn sets off in search of her fisherman father. After he fails to return home one night, Merryn builds a submarine from scrap and goes into the depths to find him, with bedtime stories of frightful creatures and undersea wonders in her head. To her surprise, it turns out that her father's fanciful stories might have more than a little truth to them. It will take all her resourcefulness to unravel the mystery of the forgotten civilization hiding beneath the waves, and, hopefully, to find her missing dad.
Insomniac has made something instantly charming with Song of the Deep. Cutscenes are full of art that looks borrowed directly from a children's storybook, and the use of a narrator telling Merryn's story over the game as it's played is a smart, streamlined nod to that conceit. Art in-game is similarly cute and almost always friendly and welcoming in a way that avoids goofiness or slapstick trappings for something more dignified. There's a sense of wonder and discovery that drives Song of the Deep in ways that help it often punch above its weight.
Those conceits lend themselves well to Song of the Deep's basic structure. Ostensibly, the ocean kingdom is completely open to exploration, but there are various kinds of barriers in Merryn's way preventing her progress. In this way, the game's setting works against it somewhat — most action-exploration games bar some forward progress for beginning players through verticality as well as locked gates, which isn't really an option for a submarine. Instead, Merryn's path may be locked behind a sea of jellyfish that remain unpassable until she finds a lamp for her submarine, or a switch to open a door might be in a cave her submarine is too big to fit into.
This last example, which forces Merryn out of her vessel in diving gear with only a knife to protect her, presents a minor but interesting twist to Song of the Deep, taking it beyond easy comparisons to Metroid on the NES and introducing a more obscure bit of influence: Blaster Master. I ordinarily wouldn't make such direct comparisons, but the resemblance in mechanics is hard to ignore, and even some of the monsters in the game bear a striking aesthetic resemblance to the 1988 NES title. Eventually, the sections where Merryn leaves her homemade submarine become some of the coolest, most clever sections of the game.
When Merryn is solving puzzles and avoiding enemies in bigger spaces, the floaty (no pun intended) controls and the idiosyncratic melee/ranged hybrid combat isn't really a problem. It's about puzzle design and smart gating, and there are moments in the game where I was taken aback at how smart things were. There's a particular set of puzzles involving light beams and color that wasn't over-explained and made me feel like I had earned a gold star for figuring it out.
But Song of the Deep's best moments are the least action-oriented, when it's demanding the least of the player's immediate inputs and its own controls. The game suffers as it asks for more than it adequately allows. Towards the last third of the game, Song of the Deep increasingly relies on more powerful versions of enemies and locked down arenas that force you to kill successive waves of enemies. These sections aren't especially fun, because combat in Song of the Deep never works particularly well.
It's almost like someone at Insomniac thought Song of the Deep just wasn't long enough, and these no-fun battles aren't the only example of this issue. While every 2D action-exploration game is built in part around backtracking and item-gating, Song of the Deep feels punitive in how it handles it. You'll likely return to each section of the game at least a few times right up until the end of the game because of the way the game miserly doles out equipment required to access each area, and it lacks the organic sense of progression that compliments the best of the genre.
The final boss is a functional metaphor for everything that doesn't work well in Song of the Deep as it locked me in a room with waves of harder enemies, several of which can kill with just a hit or two. In these sections, the slightest mistake meant a few minutes redoing the whole thing from scratch. During a moment of peak drama for the game's story, it felt anticlimactic.
At around six hours long, Song of the Deep doesn't have enough time to become a disaster, and there are redeeming aspects of it. The character, the voiceover, the presentation are all a change of pace from the video game status quo, and the sense of discovery the first half offers is welcome. But it's hard to shake the feeling of a game with potential that never quite figures out how to deliver on it.
Song of the Deep was reviewed using PC, PS4 and Xbox One download codes provided by Insomniac. The game was completed on Xbox One. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews