“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”
-Vincent van Gogh
Good things come to those who wait. So the old adage goes but it proved itself true in my case when I finally got a chance to play Song of the Deep. Developed by Insomniac Games and published by GameTrust Games (which is actually the retailer GameStop), Song of the Deep was one which caught my attention leading up to its release. I’ve mentioned before in posts past that I have a tremendous appreciation for the ocean. Unlike many other gamers I know, I’m quite fond of the occasional water-level and its usurpation of ordinary physics. I like them especially when they can capture the wonder, the terror, and the majesty of the sea.
Thus when Song of the Deep came out… I didn’t play it. Couldn’t afford it at the time and I’d heard it wasn’t a tremendously long game so the brand new price tag didn’t seem entirely worth it to me. Almost an entire year later, I picked it up at a PSN sale and finally got to play the underwater adventure I’d longed for.
But the question is: is Song of the Deep any good?
Firstly, I was delighted by its fairy tale aesthetic. The entire game is narrated by Siobhán Hewlet, British actress, whose accent and character of tone brought a lot of emotion and personality to the game. Hewlet’s narration helps the underwater realms to feel tangible, heightening the rich fantasy of the game more so than if it had only text to read yourself. I just want you to know that I typed up the rest of this review in her lovely accent…
A series of images, appearing as if drawn by hand, accompany the narrator to tell the story of little Merryn. As a girl, she lived with her father who was a fisherman. They enjoyed a poor but happy life together. Her father told her tales of incredible worlds lying beneath the waves and wondrous treasures hidden in ancient cities. Merryn watched her father set sail out to sea every day. She would hold aloft a candle on the cliff each night to see him back to port safely, until one day he doesn’t return.
Tortured by loneliness and the thought of her father being trapped somewhere in the dark abyss, she decides to patch together a ramshackle submarine and sets off to seek her father out. She’s amazed at the world which awaits her under the sea: a vast dreamscape of cyclopean edifices crumbling amid the algae and brightly colored corals, bizarre and dangerous denizens of the deep everywhere around her. Merryn is eventually caught up in the immemorial suffering of an underwater race and the tyranny of their lost technology.
Song of the Deep plays upon our innate lust for a good bedtime story. Many of us have grown up (not all of us, mind you), but no matter how old we become, we’ll never grow tired of storytelling. Not really.
I was also delighted beyond words to discover that Song of the Deep is a metroidvania side-scroller! Yes! It’s the underwater sequel to Super Metroid that nobody asked for but everybody wanted.
If you don’t know, this essentially includes gameplay influenced by both Metroid and Castlevania games, the technical term being a portmanteau of the two franchises. A few key things to note are the huge, maze-like interconnected maps which emphasize non-linear backtracking and exploration, gathering items and upgrades to increase offensive and defensive capabilities but also to unlock new areas, an emphasis on experimentation with abilities and their effect upon enemies and the environment. Sometimes metroidvania games infuse RPG elements into their action gameplay, as well. And of course there’s the 2D side-scrolling platforming. Though, in the case of Song of the Sea, this platforming was replaced by swimming with your submarine in a weightless, free-roaming experience.
I can never play enough of these games, even if one of the other key elements of them which I forgot to mention is the propensity to “get stuck” in them. Considering the emphasis on experimenting with your latest upgrades (often a combination of upgrades) and the sheer size of some of the maps in these games, it’s easy to run into a brick wall and not know what to do, or not remember what to do, and come to a gameplay standstill. Once you figure things out, then you can proceed. In this way, the metroidvania type of game relies on your wit and cleverness. Or if you’re a cheater, your ability to Google.
Maybe that’s why, and maybe this is just me, but maybe that’s why you don’t see too many of these kind of games much anymore, though there are still some recent, stellar examples.
Super Metroid is a good comparison to make with Song of the Deep. The latter adopts the use of special gates and an upgraded missile system with elemental capabilities. Song of the Deep will invariably remind you of that SNES classic with its sprawling map of different areas. Even its music evokes the Metroid atmosphere now and again. For fans of this subgenre, you’ll find a lot to like here.
But what are some of its flaws? Well, Song of the Deep, for how fun and beautiful and curious it is still has flaws. For one, it is shorter than you think. Coming up on the ending will probably pop this thought in your head: “This is it?” The ending itself comes off as rushed, which is probably the loudest criticism I’ve heard about this game. I’m sorry to merely echo something mainstream, but they’re correct on that assessment.
There is still plenty to search out, a hoard of treasures to unearth end-game but Song of the Deep is missing one major element that really brings the metroidvania games to life. Boss battles. There are some, (spoiler: highlight to reveal) by which I mean two, but there simply aren’t enough. Generally, defeating a boss earned you a new upgrade in metroidvania titles past, but here new upgrades aren’t always tied to bosses.
The first major boss in the game in Song of the Deep is a fun fight and I wish there were more like it. The boss fight seems more and more to be fast becoming a relic of our yesteryears. They’re a great test of the skills we’ve developed or awesome opportunities to try out our latest gear. Bring back boss battles!
Ultimately, if you’re looking for an involved and detailed game you may find that if you plan to scour every corner of the sea in Song of the Deep, but if you’re in it just to win it… just the story that is… then you may find that the game is a little too brief. It will not be the defining metroidvania game but it’s a great homage to many classics and it’s a relaxing game to be played at a slower pace, like an old storybook read to you in the eventide.
At the heart of it, Song of the Deep is an adventure and a tale of longing.
The 8-bit Review
Between Abzû and Song of the Deep, I’ve now played two of the most breathtaking undersea video games ever made. But where Abzû dialed in on a kind of stylistic and streamlined realism, Song of the Deep takes a painted elegance approach, a view of the ocean through the eyes of a child.
There are some truly astounding details merely in the parallax scrolling backgrounds. The husks of shattered ships, the rocky crags covered in cobwebs, the scintillating light catching on the turquoise roofs of ancient cities, these all struck me more than once with the sheer level of love and care that went into them. These are just backgrounds and foregrounds but they convey such a sense of richness. Lighting is a key element in this game and the way a lot of these settings are lit is just beautiful. The developers even included shifting hues to help denote the different areas Merryn passes through. You’ll notice it right away, from the very first glowkelp forest.
I would even say that the backgrounds themselves are the single most visually impressive feature in Song of the Deep. The characters are few and far between and while charming (especially that old hermit crab merchant), they’re dwarfed by the magnitude of their setting. This is imagination distilled.
Jonathan Wandag’s soundtrack sounds exactly like you’d expect it to sound, even if you’ve only ever had a small sampling of the recurring Ocean theme found throughout gaming history. It’s light and atmospheric. There’s a lot of vocals involved to convey this sense of majesty and wonder.
However, not everything is dappled sunlight and cerulean shallows. There are dark and foreboding areas to explore in the depths of the sea. This is echoed in the soundtrack through some frightening and suspense-filled music.
Because it is so atmospheric, where mood takes the place of melody, I’d assume that it would be a terrific soundtrack to write to. I plan to do just that in the coming days. This will perhaps not be the most memorable soundtrack but it served the game it belongs to very well.
Set in its two-dimensional perspective, Merryn can move her submarine in any direction: forward and backward and sideways and slantways and crossways and any other ways you can think of. She’s also equipped with a small boost from the get go that will help her vessel get up and go.
Collecting treasures such as coins, statuettes, and gemstones is crucial to advancing. You can use these trinkets to trade with the hermit crab merchants scattered through the sea. Once you’ve unlocked a new ability, you can continue to purchase upgrades for it from the crabs. Most of these upgrades I considered to be somewhat negligible. The advanced ice shields and grabbing your own missiles seemed like too much of a hassle for me to care about, though there’s plenty of treasure to pay for every upgrade. I focused more on upgrading my basic offense.
Merryn’s sub is equipped with a mechanical arm which shoots out a short distance. The arm can be used to strike enemies and also grab hold of items or latches, opening doors or moving heavy objects and opening treasure chests. The sub will also get a trio of missiles of various elements which can be upgraded as well. The ice and fire missiles really reminded me of Metroid. These in turn can be used to interact with the environment, not just for unlocking unique gates but for changing the buoyancy of special objects, for example. It’s interesting gameplay concepts like that which you don’t see too often.
Eventually you can even leave your sub and swim around in order to fit through narrow passageways. Merryn is unprotected like this but she’ll be able to find things she couldn’t before.
Other abilities the sub can procure include a sonar for seeking out hidden passageways and a set of searchlights to illuminate Merryn’s way. I could wish that there were even more upgrades to find. Compared to a game like Symphony of the Night, there are really only just a few but then again this game is short, as mentioned.
Everything about exploring and upgrading and treasure hunting is fun. Fighting the three or four different enemies again and again did get a little tiring toward the very end of the game with whole hordes attacking you at once and only having a few of the same armaments to fight back with. There’s just not a lot of variation to play around with.
In place of an emphasis on fighting, solving puzzles becomes a high priority in this game. In place of boss battles there are several portions of the game which are puzzle heavy but I still found these enjoyable. Some games really veer off into the realm of frustration with their puzzles but I thought most of these were mindblowingly unique. I really adored the light refracting and reflecting puzzles in the Deeplight tower, for example.
If I could have a complaint about the game it’s that some of the physics seem a bit off. Just a few of them, like dragging the tethered mines. Minimal, yes, but I felt like the mines felt either too heavy or too light and I couldn’t seem to swing them with sufficient speed to strike them against the objects I wanted to ka-blow up. At least the mines didn’t play a huge role in the entire game.
They did a really great job on this map maze. Brinstar and Norfair, eat your heart out! And thank God for those portal vortexes to warp around the sea.
If you’d like to avoid abject SPOILERS for this game, please hit Ctrl+F and search Accessibility to jump down to the next section.
Song of the Deep involves Merryn searching for her father, whom she suspects is trapped somewhere underwater. How she guessed that I don’t really know. It’s that leap of intuition which ultimately undermines the undersea story of Song of the Deep. There comes a series of moments in the story where things don’t seem to add up.
I don’t really know why the mermaid was dying or why I had to turn on the Deeplight or why Merryn suddenly thought that fighting the gigantic monster would save her father. The ending itself is pretty open ended, too. Maybe it’s because the game is so short that it sometimes feels rushed without much explanation for why one cause leads to one effect. I can gather the generality that the Fomori tech ran rampant and unchecked, destroying the ocean, culminating in the last boss who ultimately is unshackled and tears down the forbidden city itself.
But again, we’ve got to remember that this is all set in the archetype of folklore, a child’s fairy tale. As children, we never asked why the evil stepmother was so evil or why the queen wanted to be the fairest in the land (or where she got the talking mirror, for that matter) because these are all an adult’s considerations. As an adult, we think about where Robin Hood goes poop but as a kid, we’re just in it for the heroics and the archery.
I feel like a lot of that suspension of our adult considerations is required to get into Song of the Deep. I wouldn’t say it’s a kid’s game because it’s map is too large and some of its dangers too cunning, but nonetheless you’ve got to play it like a child. You’ve got to just accept that yeah there are elder dragons and leviathan and a forbidden city of lost technology with Merryn’s father conveniently buried beneath it all right there at the end.
That isn’t to say that Song of the Deep can’t reach beyond some of the silly fantasy of its details to say something potently emotional. Merryn’s journey is an emotional one of hope beyond hope for the sight of her father alive, even as that hope begins to crush as her journey wearies on. At one point, the memory of orchids and her mother shows that love drives this young girl to dive into the loneliness of this alien world. It’s a story about the value of human relationships told through mood and beautiful, undersea imagery.
Also, with the narration, the world-building that we do get is quite charming. I would’ve loved to learn more about this oceanic kingdom and the history of its peoples and cataclysm. Perhaps there’s wisdom in the platitude that less is more. Maybe what we see in Song of the Deep is the tip of the proverbial iceberg of storytelling, representing an entire cultural history which the game hints at but never expounds upon, resulting in a layered mystery at times incomprehensible and at other times more concerned with how the player feels than with what the player understands.
The final payoff of such an experiment, and Song of the Deep is undeniably experimental, may be somewhat anticlimactic or even disappointing for some but the memory of the journey itself will take a long time in fading.
The game has a good pace for learning what it demands from you the player. It’s areas and activities are spaced out enough so as to provide sufficient room for learning how to use every new ability as it is acquired. Again, some of the more advanced attack patterns and upgrades may be superfluous to get through the game but they’re there to be played around with nonetheless.
What truly makes this game accessible, though, is how it taps into our primal desire to explore. This also made it a game that was hard to put down at times. I kept wondering what was just around that corner, what the next area looked like, what the next challenge would be. That kept things lively and fresh for the duration of the game.
Song of the Deep is pretty easy. I beat it in a handful of hours spread out over a couple days. There is no game over screen. Once you run out of hit points, you simply restart from your last save point automatically, and there are many save points throughout the ocean. You’ve never too far from one and since they recover all your health, death is never a huge threat. You can simply push on and overcome anything in this game. The real challenge comes from some of the puzzles. The final light puzzle in the tower had me stuck for a respectable amount of time.
It should be mentioned that Song of the Deep represents the first time that GameStop ever directly published a game themselves. That makes it unique. However, the game itself combines a gentle narration with puzzle solving and exploration for a lovable take on the metroidvania subgenre. I was pleased with its innocence. Merryn is a vulnerable young heroine whose attributes are creativity and affection. She’s a far cry away from the typically sexualized action-heroines we generally see in games. Her journey is one which, while brief, I’ll remember for quite some time.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I don’t know if I’ve fully touched on it here in over 3,000 words but there’s just something about Song of the Deep that’s special. I could sense it leading up to its release. I was reminded I felt that way about it while playing it for myself. It would be all too easy to pass over this game but if you do, you’re missing out on something special. It may remind you what it’s like to listen to a story as a child again. Not even its faults can obstruct that. It’s exactly what I wanted after Final Fantasy XV but before the Nintendo Switch.
Aggregated Score: 7.6
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Categories: Game Review