Firstly, a confession: I have no idea what a Metroidvania type game plays like, having played neither a Metroid game or a Castlevania game. This isn’t the worst gaming crime I have committed though; I will save that one for another time. What intrigued me to try Song of the Deep more than anything else was simply that it was being developed by Insomniac, a company responsible for some of the greatest games during my formative years, and who recently developed a bit of a reputation creating some of the most original weapons across the likes of Ratchet & Clank and Sunset Overdrive. It has the backing of GameStop also, as the first game to be published under their Game Trust Games division, so with big names keen to make a statement, it should fare pretty well.
You play as a young girl called Merryn, whose father doesn’t return home one night from fishing, so she decides to go and search for him by building herself a little submarine. All fairly standard storytelling. Along the way, Merryn meets a diverse cast of characters, not all friendly, in her quest to find her father. The story is OK, not anything spectacular however. But the way it is told is. There is an unnamed voice that guides you along the story and the voice work from Siobhan Hewlett really is excellent. Sometimes distortion is put on her voice to indicate a different characters speech, but it doesn’t detract away from the sterling job of the voice work. It’s not necessarily voice-acting, because it is merely a story being re-told, but it is still very engaging. Almost like a bedtime story when you were younger, only the aim with this one isn’t to fall asleep before you reach the conclusion.
A thunderbolt of dread hit me just as I started up the game: what if the submarine controls like most sea-dwelling experiences in games, and is completely terrible? Thankfully, it’s the complete opposite and handles extremely well. Any mistakes down to steering will likely be user error rather than poor controls.
The gameplay in other areas is weaker however, such as the upgrades you can acquire for your sub. The first one you will equip will be the claw, used for picking things up and latching on. It can also be used to attack enemies and you will find it far more effective for that than any of the missile upgrades you gather up. The missiles are able to blast open stronger doors later on in the game, but that really is all they are good for. There seems to be too much of a reliance on the claw, and once fully upgraded, even the strongest enemies can be defeated within a couple of hits.
Another upgrade you collect on your journey are the front fog lights. These are used to move jellyfish that can be a potential danger, but again this could have been done better. The lights do cause the jellyfish to move out of the way, opening the path up for you, but instead of them moving out of the way to a pre-determined location, they simply move away from the light. In a narrow corridor you then may find yourself pushing a jellyfish all the way towards the end rather than to the side just to get around it. In the end, it was simply easier to slowly manoeuvre around them whilst they were stationary. It’s another little gameplay issue but they all do add up into bigger, more general issues.
As you travel round the map through all the twists and turns, you’ll realise there is quite a bit to uncover. Thankfully, there are warp gates for fast travel, one for each major area. Even with these though, there is quite a distance to cover between objectives. The game will regularly remind you what your current objective is, but even if you are travelling to your next location as fast as possible, this gentle reminder can pop up telling you what to do next. It’s yet another minor issue.
Towards the end of Song of the Deep, the difficulty ramps up a fair bit, aside from the bosses at least. This is done simply by boosting the HP of the enemies and/or putting more of them on the screen at any one time. The bosses in the game however, aren’t necessarily worthy of the title ‘boss’. There are three in total and without actually giving anything away, one is puzzle based whilst the others don’t actually harm you, acting instead like an imposing figure. The challenge comes from figuring out how to beat them and again, if you use the claw as your main weapon, the solution presents itself fairly quickly.
All apart from the last boss, which looks more like a children’s pop-up book when appendages rise up around the edges of the screen, the graphics are pretty and effective. Some sections are purposefully darker and the palette of colours chosen do work as you yourself get a feeling of claustrophobia. It’s impressive considering its in 2D, but I could feel the closeness of the caves I was exploring, especially when my character needs to leave the relative safety of the submarine behind.
During my playthrough, I unlocked nine out of the ten achievements. Six are related to the story and a couple are for doing specific things with specific characters. One lovely achievement had me drop a flower onto the final resting place of the first boss, and it really was a nice touch. In the age where games are criticised for being too violent, this poignant moment reminded me that this game is all about a little girl trying to find and rescue her father. She isn’t down there to cause absolute mayhem to the ecosystem, and it was something I was able to empathise with. The only achievement I missed was for purchasing all upgrades, but you are able to go back and collect missing treasures to purchase upgrades with, so there are no missable achievements.
Song of the Deep tends to be your typical indie game fare; harking back to the older generations of gaming with the 2D side-scroller appearance, but having a big heart and an emotional story, with a very predictable ending. But that’s okay, as it doesn’t try and do anything different by offering a big twist at the end. Gameplay wise it can get a little boring and dull after a while, but it is well paced and doesn’t feel overly long or overly short. It just feels right. It is flawed elsewhere but after 12 hours underwater with Merryn and her new found friends, I am content and pleased that I got to experience this game.
For anyone stuck between games then I really would recommend it, and it does leave me wanting to play more games in the Metroidvania-style genre.