Song of the Deep follows 12 year old Merryn, who goes fishing almost every day and usually returns home on time. One night, he never comes home, and Merryn is haunted by visions of him being dragged deep into the sea by a monster. Concerned and without hesitation, Merryn builds herself a submarine out of bits and bobs from around her household and dives into the ocean to find her father. Along the way, Merryn will encounter cute aquatic friends and eventually learns about the history of a world beneath the surface of the ocean she’d only ever heard tales about.It’s a cute tale made even cuter by the way it’s told in the same fashion as a fairy tale or bed time story – and while Song of the Deep will make no efforts to absolutely blow your mind with its revelations it’s still a rather heartwarming, wholesome kind of affair. Merryn’s resolve is admirable, if not slightly fantastical, and while it’s doubtful she’ll never roam the halls of icons as great as Lara, Mario or Crash her adventures are bound to stick with me for some time. Games rarely take this angle in the “Save The Princess” trope and it’s a nice touch to see Insomniac trying something different narratively.Both the most impressive and most disappointing aspect of Song of the Deep is its presentation. On an artistic level, it’s absolutely flawless. On a technical one, it definitely could see some improvements. From the moment you jump into Merryn’s adventure you’ll notice just how lovingly crafted the game’s cutscenes are, drawn in a style that makes them look like they’ve been lifted straight out of a storybook. It’s an impressive conceit to get around Song of the Deep’s discernable lack of budget – having the whole thing be told by one person with a sense of whimsy – and it works really well in selling the story and the atmosphere.
What works even better in selling the tone and atmosphere is the game’s strong and distinct art direction. When I first heard about Song of the Deep was I was skeptical an adventure of this breadth would be interesting enough visually given the setting. I was wrong – there’s a lot for the eye to feast on here and it’s especially awesome watching the bright and glimmer areas near the surface of the ocean slowly dim and waver as Merryn dives deeper. Such a blunt dichotomy is easily one of my highlights of the game.It’s how all of this comes together that makes Song of the Deep truly special. The most direct comparison I can think of is with Ori and the Blind Forest, and while Song of the Deep isn’t quite as strong in the artistic department, it still is a pretty looking game. The way the backgrounds and the foregrounds merge to create these realistic and beautiful underwater locales is staggering. The seaweed, the ruined structures, the random enemies here and there drifting along the current. Song of the Deep’s ambience is truly astonishing.
But there are some technical shortcomings that keep it from achieving the potential it has. Running on the infamous Unity engine, the game runs at a rather disappointing 30 frames per second. While it does look great from an artistic level, it’s disappointing to also see the game suffer from occasional slowdown every now and then, especially during combat. When passing over a save point, the game even comes to a complete halt for less than a second, which can be incredibly jarring. These aren’t deal breaker, and are presumed to be fixed in an upcoming patch, but still such performance hiccups would be remiss to not mention.Song of the Deep is what many would call a Metroidvania title. That is, you explore a large interconnected world only to backtrack to open up new areas using equipment and others items you find along your journey. Most of these games focus on four tenets – platforming and exploration, combat and puzzle solving. Song of the Deep has an interesting challenge as setting the whole thing underwater removes most of the platforming requirements required. Instead the team had to think about verticality in the design of their character progression and that’s an interesting proposition.
Instead, Song of the Deeps’ major challenges come from maneuvering your submarine through dangerous obstacles. These are some of the stronger sections of the game that really require skill, combining your abilities to maneuver through obstacles while deflecting projectiles back at enemies. They’re a kind of action orientated puzzle style that are unfortunately let down by unruly controls and temperamental physics. There’s nothing more frustrating than a puzzle that is easy to solve but hard to physically carry out – and Song of the Deep is rife with them.As you’d expect for a game of this caliber which eschews combat, there’s quite a few puzzles to be found in Song of the Deep, but unfortunately these largely fall flat. The highlight during our play through was where Merryn got a new ability to leave her submarine and manipulate coloured lights. They’re amazing puzzles that are easily the highlight of Song of the Deep but they’re over quicker than they begin and swiftly forgotten about shortly thereafter.
There is some combat to be indulged in, however, but it’s easily one of the game’s lowest points. While designed well – Merryn can combine skills to effectively take down enemies – the enemies themselves behave so similarly and so monotonously that there’s never a need to do so. Some of the ideas are just fantastic ways to “get around” making submarine battles interesting, such as Merryn being able to grab items with her Submarine’s claw arm and use them as melee weapons. But once again, there’s little reason to do so and it all feels so clunky. Make no mistakes, if you want Song of the Deep for the submarine based underwater combat it might offer then you might want to turn your attention elsewhere.Combat isn’t necessarily required but those wanting to get the most out of Merryn’s submarine will definitely want to engage in it now and then. While the game does force you into those “kill everything until the door unlocks” segments, those who want to accrue currency which can be traded for upgrades to Merryn’s submarine should seek out combat regularly. Such currency is also the crux of the hidden collectibles, which feels a bit lazy compared to other games which hide actual power ups. Instead, you’ll find money that you’ll just exchange for those power ups later. It’s much of a muchness really, but it feels less meticulously planned than other games of this genre.
There’s also a few boss battles thrown in but these never amount to anything more than defeating waves of enemies, pulling off a gimmick of some sort, and then repeating. Bosses are pretty to look at and great and memorable set pieces, but more of them could’ve provided a few more stand out moments in Song of the Deeps’ six or so hour adventure. Those wanting to explore the world after the game will be disappointed to hear that the game just sends you to your last save before the final boss. It’s justified from a story standpoint but for a game like this it feels like a glaring omission.Song of the Deep is a very mixed experience but one that should be experienced at least once. On one hand you’ve got a breathtakingly beautiful rendition of the deep sea that progressively gets both more intense and intimidating as you descend into its depths. You’ve got a genuinely loveable protagonist with a great journey to undertake. You’ve even got a large map that’s quite fun to explore.
But it’s the combat system that’s well-developed but under-utilized that lets it down. The puzzles that are easy to solve but frustrating to complete due to poor controls. The beautifully realized ambience of the deep sea marred by the poor performance of the engine it’s running on. Without a doubt, Song of the Deep is not a bad game, it’s just one that had limitless potential that it squandered. What Insomniac has offered instead is a fun little adventure, but one that’s got some smaller flaws along the way.
The PS4 version was primarily tested for the purpose of this review.