Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
There's something truly admirable about a developer that doesn't stick solely to a single formula. In the case of Insomniac Games – the studio behind Spyro, Ratchet and Clank, Resistance, and Sunset Overdrive – the company is consistently delivering solid efforts with a very diverse library. The latest offering from Insomniac, Song of the Deep, is once again a shift in a different direction; one that provides a vastly enjoyable underwater journey filled with an array of memorable, feel-good moments.
A Storybook Adventure
Song of the Deep stars a young girl named Merryn, whose seafaring father shares tales of his voyages and epic myths about the vast ocean. One day, her father doesn't return home after setting sail, so Merryn decides to build a submarine and sets out to find him. The story is essentially what could be referred to as a “save-the-princess” narrative but, interestingly, it moves away from stereotypical gender roles and casts the female character as the lead.
The fact that Song of the Deep can move away from a typical plot formula is certainly admirable, and though the story itself isn't necessarily complex, it's told quite well. Hand-drawn story sequences pop up from time to time to push the narrative further. These don't take up a lot of time and they help to introduce new characters, including bosses and friendly sea creatures, as well as to provide insight on Merryn's personality. In addition, a well-voiced narrator delivers even more insight on the adventure as you collect upgrades for Merryn's ship or befriend underwater beasts.
Deep Sea Exploration
While Song of the Deep certainly follows a lot of the expected Metroidvania trappings, it does so in a way that's much more inviting than something like, say, Axiom Verge. Thanks to a handy map that points you in the right direction by marking your next destination, you never have to worry about getting lost. Even then, you'll constantly notice treasure chests in areas that you can't access until you've found the necessary upgrades. These usually contain cash that you can use to purchase upgrades for your submarine, but a few also have items that increase your sub's defenses.
During your travels, you'll collect some really cool submarine abilities. The hookshot and boost come early on and are great, but it's the fire and ice missiles that are really awesome. Not only do these explosive shots allow you to deal out damage to enemies, but they also let you break down specific walls that may be blocking different areas or treasures. And if you take the time to visit the friendly hermit crab's shop, you can upgrade them in some really rad ways that I won't spoil here.
You can choose from three difficulty settings. I played through Song of the Deep on medium difficulty and didn't struggle much at all. There are a few puzzles and enemy encounters that can get tedious, and given how fluid the rest of the game is these stand out a bit, but they thankfully don't ruin the overall experience. In addition, the few boss battles you engage in aren't all that interesting despite some great creature designs.
Given the negative reputation of underwater levels in video games, it's great to see that Song of the Deep, which takes place entirely underwater, handles so well. Navigating the depths of the ocean with Merryn's submarine feels great thanks to the smooth, responsive level of control you get. And when you eventually get to move around with Merryn outside of her sub, you're once again treated to really precise controls.
A Riveting Underwater Land
During my first few hours playing Song of the Deep, I kind of wanted the in-game graphics to have the hand-drawn look of the story scenes because of just how great those are. As I continued playing, however, I gained an appreciation for the game's art style, especially as the different areas introduced new visual themes, including a steampunk-inspired vessel and a brightly colored garden of underwater plant life. Every time I entered a new area, I was amazed by just how pretty everything looked and, more importantly, by the diversity introduced to each new part of the map.
As nice as Song of the Deep looks, its soundtrack is even more impressive. Featuring a collection of beautiful themes that range from serene all the way to epic, the game's sound design is equal parts emotionally stirring and catchy. Adding to the great sound is the solid narration that helps realize the grand world that the game is set in and brings the story to life.
Over the course of my six-hour playthrough, I was completely captivated by Song of the Deep. I just wanted to keep on going forward and, save for a few annoying puzzles and combat sections, I never felt that the game was keeping me from seeing Merryn's story through to the end. It was such a great time that I can't wait to play through the game again. Kudos to Insomniac for successfully delivering with this exciting, dramatic shift, and for showing us that there's room in the video game industry for lovely little games like Song of the Deep.