A little girl’s father fails to return after trying to find a lost civilisation at sea and she’s just had a vision that he’s drowning. Does she radio him? Alert the coastguard? Put some money in the ‘leccy meter and turn on the lighthouse?
Nope, this young lady’s first instinct is to build a submarine and go find him herself. She has a rough idea where he was headed, and seeing as this is a 2D game, she thankfully chooses to set off to the right, which is always a good start. Right and down a bit.
Essentially, Song of the Deep is an underwater 2D ‘Metroidvania’ adventure, by which I mean a large explorable environment, with multiple unlockable paths. Many of these paths, well, water-filled tunnels and caves, are only accessible when you’ve unlocked a new piece of kit for the submarine. Some pieces are found by exploring, while other upgrades can be bought with the coins you find on your adventures. Bought from your friendly local sea-snail that is.
Tools include a speed-boost to get through areas with a strong current, a hook for bashing enemies or pulling switches, rockets, torches to push through fields of jellyfish and even diving gear to allow you to leave the submarine and swim through smaller gaps. There are many new gadgets, which in turn will eventually enable access to all those areas you’ve been failing to get to.
As with many Metroidvania type games, exploration can often feel pointless, as you awkwardly rub your submarine around areas trying to get through, when in most cases, if you’re coming up against any form of blocked area, you probably don’t have the right equipment yet. So in essence, exploring anywhere away from the objective marker, can feel like a waste of time. Eventually, you’ll be sent backtracking pretty much everywhere once you have the right gear, so there’s not much need to stray from the path aside from the odd health upgrade or treasure.
Feeding giant clams the right ingredient can reward you with some extra cash, but it’s too trial and error to be a genuinely rewarding amount of your time. I thought the skeletons perched around the ship graveyards were a neat touch though, as they seem to be pointing in the rough direction of hidden treasure for you.
Despite gaming having an extensive history of underwater levels being the most frustrating of them all, the controls in Song of the Deep hold up well. Sure the floaty submarine isn’t as graceful as the ship in the excellent Pixeljunk Shooter series, but it’s surprisingly responsive when it counts and combat against the underwater locals is rarely frustrating.
Dragging mines behind you is incredibly annoying though. You need them to blast through wooden blockades, without them touching anything else on the way. These routes are overlong and the floaty mechanics finally bite you in the ass – by having your mine bounce up your chain and straight into your behind. It’s the first time in the game where the fun plunges into the abyss, but not the last.
Song of the Deep doesn’t opt for a twin-stick control method, instead you shoot in the direction you’re facing at all times, but enemy numbers rarely make this feel like a disadvantage, especially once you’ve upgraded the hook a few times and unlocked the rockets. For most of the game, you’re rarely challenged at if I’m honest. And then the lasers turn up. Ah the lasers, what begins as basic light reflecting puzzles soon turned into a full on nightmare of colour mixing and pain. Maybe it was the fact that the game hadn’t proved challenging at all until the dizzying multi-coloured laser puzzle and my brain had gone into a deep slumber, but by the time I’d done with them I was ready for the game to be over. Instead, I was briefly given a new area to explore and then given more new gear, forcing me to backtrack -again- all over the map to unlock the tiny areas I couldn’t access before.
The camera struggles to keep up when you’re trying to put some space between you and the larger packs of enemies, making it difficult to avoid taking a few cheap shots. In fairness, the combat’s never genuinely challenging, so it’s not a huge issue, just disappointing considering keeping the camera moderately centred is such a basic element in a 2D game.
Less forgivable is the chugging frame-rate that gloops up the action whenever more than three enemies swim your way. If Insomniac can have Ratchet & Clank performing without such issues, it makes little sense that they can’t get these modest encounters to run smoothly.
Looks wise, Song of the Deep never pushes the boat out. Cutscenes are crude illustrations with minimal animation and the 2D levels themselves are incredibly repetitive, with only minor changes in the backgrounds as you slowly uncover more signs of the lost civilisation. And if you think 2D games can’t really be pretty anymore in this day and age, I’d suggest you go and let Trine 3 massage your eyes after playing this.
- Combat is simple and fun
- Lots of Metroidvania-esque unlocks
- At least there’s no oxygen meter
- Dragging mines is awful
- Framerate chugs
- Final stages are a chore
The Short Version: Song of the Deep outstays its welcome after about five hours and never quite gets back to being fun. The combat works, despite the underwater setting, and unlocking new tools can feel rewarding. But eventually, you’re going to tire of all the backtracking and some irritating mechanics that make a light and breezy game incredibly frustrating at times.
Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed) | Xbox One | PC
Developers: Insomniac Games
Publishers: Game Trust Games / GameStop