Insomniac Games' Song of the Deep opens like an illustrated children's storybook. It tells the tale of a young girl, Merryn, whose fisherman father one day doesn’t return from a fishing voyage. She waits up all night, but by morning there is still no sign of him. When she finally sleeps, she has a vivid dream of her father trapped beneath the sea, and she decides that she has to go to his rescue. To that end, she builds a rickety submarine from old spare parts, and starts off on a fantastic undersea adventure.
The inaugural release from GameStop's new GameTrust label, Song of the Deep is a 2D side-scrolling sub-aquatic metroidvania in which you pilot said rickety submarine around a non-linear undersea environment in search of Merryn's captive father. The map is impressively large, and comprises a wide variety of different areas that have their own distinct look and feel, from beautiful glowing kelp forests to the dark and dangerous maw.
The sub starts out pretty much bare bones in terms of accessories, but fortunately there are spare bits and pieces of gear that you can find on your travels that can be bolted onto the craft to upgrade it. A retractable claw is perhaps the most intrinsically important piece of equipment to aid your efforts in this way. This can be deployed to grab onto and pick up items, as well as be used as an offensive weapon to bash and destroy the hostile undersea creatures that you often encounter on your travels. An item that's held in the claw can also be shot in whichever direction you wish – functionality that plays an important part in the game as you progress.
Other enhancements to find include an engine booster that temporarily grants the sub additional speed – which is ideal for fighting against the strong currents that eddy and swirl around certain areas of the map. There's also a sonar device, three different types of torpedoes, and a sea shell that enables Merryn to exit the sub and swim around the environment.
In typical metroidvania fashion, these enhancements usually enable you to access new areas of the map. For example, the magma torpedo that you pick up can be used to destroy ice barriers that block your way, while a sonar upgrade you nab late in the game lets you shatter glass walls and activate sonar switches to open doors that were previously impassable. It's classic metroidvania design, and it works well in the way that it governs progress.
As well as useful items of gear, scattered throughout the game's environment are coins, gems, statues, and other treasures that have a monetary worth. Pick these up as you find them, and you can spend the funds you garner at friendly hermit crab traders to further upgrade your equipment. In this way, the claw's range can be extended and further enhanced to do more damage to enemy creatures, and the speed boost given more duration and a faster cooldown time. Torpedoes can also be modified, and the sonar device upgraded to add additional offensive capabilities, all of which comes in highly useful as you travel deeper into the game and encounter increasingly hostile undersea creatures.
Merryn's search for her father is a journey that encompasses both exploration and puzzle solving. Early on in the game, doorways block the way forward, and the only way they can be opened is by piecing together broken statues. This is where the sub's ever-useful claw comes into play – you can pick up a statue's head, for example, and tow it over to the body and place it correctly to make a door swing open. Soon, though, the puzzles take a turn for the more challenging – requiring you to pull a chain to open a door, pick up a statue head and fire it through the doorway before it closes again. The timing on this particular puzzle is very tight, and it's essentially physics-based as you try to shoot the head at the correct trajectory so that it lands on the body.
The deeper you get into the game, the more sophisticated its puzzles become. There's a really involved and quite challenging section of the game that requires you to refract light beams to activate doors and other pieces of machinery, and later in the game you get to push and pull explosive weapons around to open up new pathways.
The nature of the puzzles is varied and entertaining, and the way they're presented is quite novel. The game is very nicely narrated during key moments, essentially telling Merryn's story, and clues are sometimes given as to what to do next. However, it's not just a case of following instructions – there are plenty of puzzles that you need to work out for yourself. Most require a combination of coordination and reflexes, as well as logic to figure out the correct solution, and on the whole they're nicely designed to be enjoyable and rewarding to solve. I was going to give a couple of examples here, but I don't really want to spoil too much of the game – but essentially you use the game's physics as well as the functionality of the sub in quite ingenious and creative ways to manipulate and move objects around the environments.
No metroidvania worth its salt would be without boss battles, and Song of the Deep is no exception. The game features a few set pieces, but I found for the most part they were a little on the disappointing side. The first major boss battle is quite protracted and fiddly, and I just found it more of a chore than an entertaining fight. There are also several encounters where you need to catch and fire bombs at a mini-boss using the claw. I just found these situations a little awkward, because aiming and firing with the claw is sometimes imprecise and vague, which can make the proceedings somewhat frustrating, especially when you take damage from a mis-fired bomb. Ultimately I just found Song of the Deep's boss battles to be a little lacking in drama and excitement – they just don't quite seem to have that spark of creativity and imagination that's evident in many of the game's puzzles.
Fortunately, though, the rest of the game is really solid. Exploring Song of the Deep's wonderfully drawn, parallax environments is a memorable experience. The quality of the hand-rendered backdrops is absolutely superb, with terrific attention to detail: Nearer the surface, schools of fish swim along together, shafts of sunlight play across landscape features, and there's seaweed and other fauna and flora everywhere. Dive deeper into the depths, and things get darker and more barren. There are shipwrecks to navigate, boneyards to travel through, giant underwater machines to negotiate, and even pitch-black areas that are fraught with danger. Song of the Deep is definitely a fantastic-looking game whose map is a joy to travel around.
The atmospheric, haunting music that accompanies the action is also top-drawer. It's mostly quite mellow and really works well with the underwater environments to enhance the feeling of wonder that the game elicits. Indeed, I'd go so far to say that Song of the Deep's soundtrack is one of the best I've heard in years in terms of the way it perfectly suits the game.
All in all, Song of the Deep delivers a really enjoyable metroidvania that has enough of its own thing going on to not feel like it's trying to knock off the classic games of the genre Sure, it follows the typical metroidvania style of gameplay in terms of the way the map and progression works, but its puzzles, presentation, and underwater setting deliver enough of an original experience for the game to stand on its own merits. Indeed, were the boss and mini-boss fights a little more compelling and dramatic, this would be a five-star game for me, but ultimately it just falls a little short of a top score because of those somewhat weak set pieces. They're not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but they just seem to be a little flat compared to the quality of the rest of the game.
The only other complaint I have is that there's just one save game slot. It's a minor issue, but it seems like an oversight. Even just three slots would have ensured that you could have had the option of having a few different saves, such as one where you're collecting everything there is to grab in the game, as well as a speed run save. It just seems like a poor idea to restrict users to just one save slot.
Still, even so, Song of the Deep is a wonderful game that delivers a really entertaining experience over its seven-or-so hours running time. It might take you a little longer to get through it if you stop and admire the scenery, as well as pick up every collectible along the way, but overall it's a satisfying and rewarding experience. If this is a sign of things to come from GameTrust, this should be a label worth keeping an eye on.
Simple, clean, and nicely designed.
The game takes around seven to eight hours to finish. Beyond that, there's not a lot to keep you coming back for more.
The music that accompanies the action is hauntingly beautiful, and works perfectly with the underwater setting.
Song of the Deep's impressively large map is gorgeously rendered, and features a wide variety of wonderful locales to explore.
Insomniac Games' Song of the Deep is an excellent metroidvania whose underwater setting gives the genre a nice twist. Its map is impressively large, and it packs many inventive puzzles that are fun to solve. It looks and sounds brilliant too. The boss battles are a little on the weak side however, but they don't take the shine off what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable and very sweet exploration game.