Themes like mental health, anxiety, and family problems are something fairly new in the world of gaming. In the early days through to the mid-2000s, the biggest gaming problem you might have faced would have been not having enough cash to buy a rocket launcher in an in-game shop. Nowadays there have been a host of beautifully crafted games that have dealt with entertainment and mental health problems in an ingenious way; think Hellblade or Night in the Woods. Now though, EA, with the help of their indie sub-branch EA Originals, has launched a very personal title from a developer who has plenty of strings to their bow, even voicing the main character. It is the wonderful looking title, Sea of Solitude.
In Sea of Solitude you play the role of Kay, a young woman who appears to us as a red-eyed monster on-board a rowing boat surrounded by a larger red-eyed monster. We soon find ourselves trapped in a half sunken empty city, travelling around and dealing with each monster, learning the story they have to tell on the way. Very quickly we discover that these guys represent real humans and relationships in Kay’s life, allowing us to hear and see her story through a bunch of dysfunctional narratives.
A case of bullying that affected her little brother is told through a story of evil ghostly school children. A big climb up a broken skyscraper full of disused office equipment tells the story of her father, his relationship with her mother, and how that unfolds. There is also a deeply upsetting journey to the arctic slopes, with a giant white wolf in tow, that tells the tale of a long and hurtful relationship with a boyfriend. It’s all there and everything is laid bare from the writers and developer, but it is all very well crafted and the material shown is done so in a very sensitive and entertaining way.
The gameplay that is held together with these narratives is quite simple, mostly centred around driving your little boat with a switch of the stick. When you embark onto land, you can jump and climb ladders. There’s a very helpful technique used by the developer which sees you light a flare, with the light guiding you into the direction you should be going. This works well in this empty city, and without it it’ll be easy to get lost.
There is a puzzle element included too, but it’s not mind-bending or ever particularly taxing as the focus is always on the journey rather than the challenge of the gameplay. You might have to find triggers to open a gate in order to make it to the next section, or uncorrupt a piece of light to unlock a pathway. There are boss battles – at least of a sort – which use these tricks, but they aren’t very hard or very complicated to achieve.
Sea of Solitude on Xbox One lasts around 3-4 hours in length, and if I’m honest it could do with being a tad longer. There are some extra little things to take in away from the main story, like shooing away a number of seagulls and finding messages in bottles dotted across the empty cities. The journey is a very pleasant one though, with some great moments of magic, wonder, and innovative gaming. Unfortunately, I found the final section among the weakest, mainly as it didn’t surprise me as much as I would have liked; certainly not like everything that went before it. Some may also criticise the actual gameplay which becomes a bit familiar after a while, with little in the way of true variation, but for me it wasn’t important enough to hinder my experience of this amazing journey.
The visual design and look of Sea of Solitude on Xbox One is where the heart and soul of the game is. It runs with a beautiful colour scheme and the places you visit are intriguing and delightful. It reminds me of RIME a fair old bit, both in terms of the overall design and the gameplay ideas. The design of the monsters is done in a brilliant way; making them look scary, but also incredibly sad and lonely at the same time. I loved the brother’s monster crow and the boyfriend’s wolf, and it certainly delivers a world in which you could spend so much time.
And then that gets us into the sound design, and this is remarkable. As a rule I tend to listen out for the soundtracks while playing games and I like to mention how important their work is. The one in Sea of Solitude is exceptional with some brilliantly composed tracks that add to the story and exploration of the world. The effects are magnificent too, allowing the atmosphere built around the world to come out with a very high standard. The voice over work is generally good too, with a few minor dips. The voices of the ghost children – “I’m going to kill you” – will stay with me on many a sleepless night.
I have loved my time with this intriguing adventure. Yes, I think Sea of Solitude on Xbox One is too short, some of the gameplay doesn’t ever push hard enough in terms of what could be done, and the last act isn’t as interesting as it could have been. But the way the story and the journey are crafted and told through its characters, themes, visuals, and audio is superb. This half-drowned city is a place I could happily spend more gaming hours in, particularly taking into account the wonderful character creation that is found within.
More, please EA. More.