If I had to describe Sea of Solitude in a word, the first that comes to mind is ‘raw’. In a game that handles sensitive subject matter with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, its unflinching representations of depression, which manifests as a literal black dog in Jo-Mei’s adventure debut, and other afflictions evoke discomfort. Sea of Solitude’s themes challenge players in a way its core mechanics fail to throughout its extremely brief runtime.
It’s becoming easier as time goes on to discuss these once taboo topics and it helps that a creative in an interactive medium can have the bravery to publicly lick their wounds in the hopes that someone might be helped along the way.
Sea of Solitude is considered by its creator to be her most personal and creative project yet. Cornelia Geppert’s real-life relationship breakdown and how she dealt with it at the time influences a lot of what is put to screen, though that isn’t to say the big issues Sea of Solitude tackles aren’t ones everyone wrestles with at one time or another. There’s a lot of hard topics that Sea of Solitude dresses up as metaphors, though it isn’t long before they’re stripped back, exposed and worked through during Kay’s emotional voyage.
In four rather succinct chapters, Sea of Solitude explores a series of relationships in Kay’s life that have been impacted by issues that bubbled under the surface unbeknownst to her. As though guided through an out-of-body experience by Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past, Kay gets a new perspective on a number of encounters in her life where she failed to provide the shoulder to lean on or ear to bend. Despite some rather bad writing and line delivery throughout courtesy of the actors involved, it’s hard not to be moved by Sea of Solitude in how it tackles and deftly handles its narrative.
Jo-Mei slathers on the symbolism in Sea of Solitude. One of the few core loops in the game sees Kay banish corruption throughout the map, an act that sees her absorb the burdens of others which she carries in a small rucksack on her back. It’s literal baggage. There’s another instance later in the game when Kay is trying to extend help to someone only to be halted time and time again by walls of ice, a physical hurdle and a representation of the defence mechanisms of those who struggle at times.
Beyond cleansing the Venice-like submerged city that Kay’s journey takes place in, there isn’t a whole lot to Sea of Solitude beyond sailing from story beat to story beat. Each so-called boss encounter is made up of one specific mechanic you’re taught in the few prior chapters, though it’s always something very simple. The game doesn’t ever really mount a challenge what’ll likely be a sub-four-hour playthrough.
(I did beat the game in under three hours, though I had to play the first half twice thanks to my save dissipating into the cloud.)
There are seagulls to shoo and bottled messages to collect, which could potentially pad out your experience, though it’s hard to argue that it offers anything substantial. It’s just busy work, in the end.
In terms of looks, Sea of Solitude is a literal tale of two cities. During calmer moments, the game’s world is beautiful. It’s vibrant and full of colour and being able to see into the deeper water, clear and undisturbed, creates a sense of comfort and ease. This exists in stark contrast to the horror show that lurks just below the surface when things take a turn. There’s a Lovecraftian quality to the monstrous ink-black reflections that inhabit Kay’s world. Sea of Solitude performs solidly throughout despite a few rough edges, though the animation is a mixed affair. When it’s said and done though, I’ll remember the game for its monster’s eery slithers before I recall the robotic human animation.
With a somewhat exorbitant asking price considering its extremely brief running time, it’s hard to recommend Sea of Solitude at launch. Though you’re not likely to play it twice, it’s at least worth your time once. Few games are brave enough to draw the curtain on mental well-being and Sea of Solitude isn’t shy about depicting it as the ugly blight it can be. Sea of Solitude, if nothing else, is an introspective journey that could challenge players at a human level, though it’s not likely to challenge the gamer in them.
THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
I wish I could say that Sea of Solitude excels in every way a game can. Though it offers an honest, raw depiction of how unfortunately disparate life can be and the toil that goes with that, it fires few shots as an interactive experience. A rather barren world and repetitive core loops only serve to mar what is an otherwise overwhelming sensory treat.