Song of the Deep is quite a departure for Insomniac Games – not that I’m complaining or anything. I was a bit worried about the direction they were headed after the unnecessary (but likeable) reboot of Ratchet & Clank, which was seemingly done to cash-in with the movie and piddled all over the original story.
Now they’ve turned right around and released an indie-flavoured passion project in the form of Song of the Deep. For lack of better options, I’m forced to use to the term “metroidvania” as it most closely describes the genre to which Song of the Deep can be likened, one which emphasises exploration and the discovery of objects/abilities needed to progress through the game.
Song of the Deep tells the story of Merryn, a 12 year-old girl who ekes out a meagre existence with her father, a fisherman. She doesn’t mind it much, because her father frequently entertains her with fantastic stories about undersea civilisations and strange creatures. One day, her father doesn’t come home from a fishing trip, and Merryn has dreams of him being trapped under the ocean. So she builds a submarine and sets out to find him. It’s not long before she realises that her father’s fanciful stories were actually true.
When I first started playing it, I got a bit of Studio Ghibli anime tang from it, probably from the atmosphere of wonder and innocence it exudes with a mild undercurrent of very real danger. In the story scenes, characters are drawn in a very Ghibli-like cartoon style. The story is loosely based on Irish mythology, which tickled me a bit because I recognised quite a few things in there. The narration is supplied by a woman with a charming Oyrish accent, which reinforces the atmosphere of fairy tale innocence.
As Merryn descends in her ramshackle submarine, she finds a world that sprawls off in every direction. I’ve already mentioned that Song of the Deep is a metroidvania, so as Merryn starts her adventure, she has only a basic submarine with a claw attachment, severely limiting the areas she can visit. As she explores, she’ll find upgrades which increase the capabilities of her sub and allow her access to new areas. These upgrades include things like a longer claw, a stronger engine that affords her sub short bursts of speed, torpedoes, sonar, a diving suit that allows her to leave the sub to swim into confined areas, and a knife she can wield to fend off enemies and solve puzzles. She can also collect mountains of treasure to buy further upgrades to these abilities from a suspiciously commerce-savvy hermit crab.
While I was doing some research about the game, I came across a number of claims that Song of the Deep is light on combat and focuses more on exploration and puzzle solving. Now, maybe it’s just because I’m the kind of idiot who feels my self-esteem waver if I don’t start a game on the hardest available difficulty setting – but I found that claim to be somewhat disingenuous. There’s plenty of combat to be had and it’s pretty demanding. Each type of enemy requires a different strategy to beat, and they often show up in groups of different types, which is fine, because I like challenging combat – I just wish the enemies wouldn’t bloody respawn every time I revisit an area. It makes the backtracking and secret-searching endemic to the metroidvania genre a bit of a chore.
That’s not to say the game is light on puzzles either. There’s plenty of that, ranging from the simplest find-the-right-tool-to-get-in puzzles to some really rather brain-bending head-scratchers. The light-reflection puzzles in a certain temple spring to mind, where you must use crystals and reflectors to split and combine light of different colours to activate ancient machines. The main solution takes a bit of brainpower to figure out, but there are some smaller areas off to the side containing rewards that you can access in the process of solving the main puzzle – and those will definitely pull some plonkers.
At one point I was forced to wait a bit before progressing through the game, as I was one of the unlucky few who hit a game-halting bug, which Insomniac was pretty quick to address. A number of patches have fixed several bugs of this type, as well as addressing some exploits players have found. Seems a bit sloppy by Insomniac’s standards, in my experience. Tsk tsk, Insomniac.
Song of the Deep is enjoyable and atmospheric, and I enjoy the rock-solid combat when it isn’t being tedious. It’s unlikely to remain in my thoughts for too long though. It’s also a bit short, if you plan to gun through it without finding all the secrets and hidden areas. But for a charming little distraction, you could do worse.