Some games deal in subtlety, while others pedal in the opposite. Sea of Solitude, the new EA-published adventure game from Jo-Mei Games, is the latter.
In it, you play as Kay, a furry monster-girl who barely acknowledges her own hellish appearance. She finds herself lost at sea, confused about her whereabouts and identity as she slowly pieces her life back together. Except she's never really alone. She always has someone, or something, by her side, whether it's a mysterious girl who floats around, a glowing orb, or giant monsters who are stand-ins for loved ones she's spurned over the years. Kay spends a lot of time saying she's all alone, but in actuality, she never really is.
The monsters are breathtaking. They're mostly feathered creatures, like a giant eagle or a strangely feathered chameleon. When traversing this submerged vision of what Kay says reminds her of Venice, Italy, you often have to keep an eye out for a furry giant shark-thing that follows Kay just beneath the surface of the water. If you touch the water while it's close by, it rushes toward her and eats her up. It's these hauntingly beautiful, and downright terrifying, moments that make Sea of Solitude feel like it might be a better game than it actually is.
That's because in the moment to moment, Sea of Solitude is awfully tedious. You sail between submerged buildings in your tiny rowboat sometimes, which emits a light that makes the whole world colorful. Leave the boat to explore more, and the world grows dark and stormy. Unfortunately, the exploration is never too exciting. Across the world, you collect messages in bottles for some additional storytelling, and shoo away seagulls, of which there are 32 in the entire game. Strangely, the rowboat traversal is more minimal than I expected for a game with sea in the title, and I wished there was more of it by its end.
You never do battle in Sea of Solitude, though there are many threats, like the fuzzy shark-thing. Occasionally you're even chased by shadow children, but you have a tool to fight back: a "light flare" power you have brings light to busted lamps and other things. You move close to the threats to get them to chase you, run back to the area with the busted light and power it on; the shadows caught in the beacon vanish into a poof.
Only it's a clunky system. Sometimes the foes stop just short of the light. Sometimes not even all of them chase you. There are many variants of this key light flare ability, and whenever a scene would call for it, it was inevitable that it'd take far longer to work successfully than intended.
In these frustrating sequences where the finicky action and platforming were necessary to move forward, I found myself almost wishing that the dull "follow the orb" sections were all this game had in terms of action. While the orb parts were dry, with only heartfelt narration and flashbacks of conversations compelling you onward, at least they weren't frustrating to play. Plus you could take in the pretty sights, like seeing the sea part to make way for Kay as she explores the abandoned city.
The occasional boss battle, where you never are literally fighting, is where the cumbersome side of Sea of Solitude is most prevalent. In one, you run around collecting orbs as shadows chase you, before absorbing shadows that are dogpiling on your glowing orb friend by standing still and opening up your backpack with a button prompt. Two hits from the shadows chasing you though, and you're dead. Another sequence has you chased by creatures when you pick up an object; one slight false step and they catch up to you quickly, effectively sending you back to the beginning of the sequence. Chase sequences are hardly enjoyable in most games, but here with the slow movement, imprecise jumps, and inconsistent AI, it's made worse.
Still, it's very obviously a personal game for its director, as has been paraded by EA for the game itself in the years leading up to its release. And playing it, it's like peering into her soul. It's an uncomfortably close look at how we unwittingly push people away and how our actions (or very existence) can negatively affect others in ways we could never imagine. On that end, I'd argue it's at least a thought-provoking game, if maybe not landing the emotional impact intended as it's sandwiched between tedious gameplay and dull sequences.
Even with its breezy under three-hour runtime, it wears thin quick. It's a shame too, because Sea of Solitude is trying to say a lot, and it clearly means a lot to the people who made it. And yet, my biggest takeaway when credits rolled was just that the monsters sure were marvelous, and the action left me bored and waiting for it to end.
Not even striking art direction and sincere storytelling can save the unfortunate nature of Sea of Solitude. Marred by dull action and, at worst, frustrating sequences, Sea of Solitude ends up feeling like twice the length of its runtime. Those monsters and that world sure are gorgeous though.