Song of the Deep can't seem to get out of its own way. While the small-scale project from Insomniac--and debut of GameStop's new publishing wing, GameTrust--has glimmers of greatness, it constantly feels just slightly off in ways that could have been easily adjusted for a more pleasant experience. There's a sweet heart buried inside this game, but its unpolished moments obscure it.
It does break from the usual conventions of the usual "Metroidvania" style by slightly setting itself entirely underwater. This reduces the platforming element of the usual game style, and replaces it with a floaty shooter quality, as you have a full range of motion around the entire map. It's a nice touch, even if Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet essentially beat it to the punch five years ago.
However, the increased mobility means gating has to be implemented in frustrating ways, made more so by inconsistent checkpoints. One segment required me to use my grappling hook to slowly fight against a current in an achingly long slog, only to die afterwards and repeat the whole thing over. At two separate points Song of the Deep requires backtracking to collect three baubles in order to forward the story.
A Whale of a Tale
Speaking of which, the plot itself is surprisingly dull. Merryn, a young girl who grew up hearing her father's tall tales of the sea, has a vision when her father goes missing. She goes to search for him, encountering the real mythical beasts she'd heard about in his stories along the way. As the dad of a baby girl myself, I'm usually a sucker for stories revolving around fathers and daughters, but this failed to resonate with even me on an emotional level. The interplay of characters and creatures seemed scattered haphazardly, not amounting to much on the whole, and the ultimate resolution lacked punch.
This aspect was especially disappointing because the game is so endearing in other ways. The art style had a beautiful painterly quality, and the cutscenes looked hand-crafted with lush illustrations. I was also happy to see a kind, curious young girl as the brave and plucky heroine, even if she was stuck in a mediocre story regarding underwater politics.
The bulk of Song of the Deep, though, involves exploration and puzzle-solving. You'll use the various tools at your disposal to traverse tight spaces or reconstruct statues that open pathways. These are usually light and enjoyable, but again the game trips over itself by making some too reliant on precise timing or aim. In those moments, the puzzles feel less like an intellectual exercise, as I knew what the game expected of me and simply had to try over and over to nail the execution.
Combat also comes into play occasionally. It's a secondary trait to the puzzle-solving play, accented by how long it takes to get a traditional weapon for your tiny submarine. Until then, you simply have to make-do with a grappling claw. Upgrades are available that add qualities like extra damage or special attributes to your shots, though it seems as if a few unmarked upgrades would be necessary to handle some of the more difficult combat scenarios.
As I progressed, I found enemies were increasingly becoming more and more hearty, and the weightless quality of sea-faring kept the combat from ever seeming like a fully natural part of the experience. It almost felt like a twin-stick shooter, but without the second stick to control aim while moving it didn't hold up nearly as well. Toss in sonar pulses that would toss the tiny vessel around at crucial moments, and its general tendency to lean hard on a series of battles near the end-game, and by the time I finished my feelings had soured by sheer combat exhaustion.
I wanted to like Song of the Deep much more than I did. It's clearly a passion project and certain aspects of it are sweet and appealing. However, the strong story concept fizzles and the play itself is checkered with small problems. Each one is tiny on its own, but like the ocean is made of drops of water, the small things add up and wash over the whole experience.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 download code provided by the publisher. Song of the Deep will be available in GameStop locations and digital stores on July 12, for $14.99. The game is rated E.