Also On: Xbox One, PC
Developer: Insomniac Games
Metroidvania month is upon us… I’m probably the only one calling it that but that’s neither here nor there. Song of the Deep is the first of two brand new Metroidvania style games that I am reviewing this month (Head Lander from Double Fine is next up). Song of the Deep from Insomniac Games has flown relatively under the radar since it was announced earlier this year, but I’ve had it in the back of my mind building excitement. When you take the studio that made Ratchet and Clank, Spyro, as well as others and announce they are going to dabble with the Metroidvania genre, expectations should immediately be high.
Part of the release announcement for Song of the Deep that really took people by surprise, was that Gamestop (under the new publishing name: Gametrust) was going to publish the title. A digital game published by a retail store that relies on physical sales of new and preowned games. This move makes me think that Gamestop is finally figuring out that they need to broaden their scope when it comes to gaming, and why not try to make money with digital titles as well. Now they are releasing a physical edition (along with a collectors version) as a Gamestop exclusive, but they have to know that at least 75% of their sales will come from the digital stores (and I feel like that percentage is being generous). I’m very intrigued to see how this plays out for them over time, but now onto Song of the Deep.
Song of the Deep tells us the story of Merryn, a little girl who lost her fisherman father. She crafts herself a submarine and ventures to find her lost father. Along the journey Merryn tells us of stories her father taught her with creatures and locations in this vast sea. Like traditional Metroidvania games, you have a huge map that isn’t fully accessible until you unlock all of your items and upgrades. You immediately realize that the environments of the extensive map are beautiful and vibrant and at times cold and barren. Song of the Deep hits a home run when it comes to its atmosphere. Not only are the visuals great but the musical score hits all the right notes to give you the perfect feel for each of the areas. The story being told by Merryn also lends itself perfectly to the atmosphere and I really enjoyed her narrating as I played through.
The atmosphere and storytelling are the best parts of Song of the Deep and without them I don’t know where my review would fall. The game brings Metroidvania style to a whole new level by having you play as a submarine, but does that actually help or hinder the gameplay? You do get upgrades later in the game that allow you to exit the submarine, but you still remain in the water (as a swimming Merryn). The weapon choices and some of the swimming physics didn’t do much for me. Without spoiling any of the game, some of the required actions you must complete in order to finish areas and puzzles can become extremely tedious and frustrating. I should also mention that Song of the Deep is very puzzle driven. I was kind of surprised by how many puzzles were in the game for better or worse. Usually Metroidvania style games aren't as puzzle deep, so this was a welcome addition to an extent. Some of the later puzzles became very monotonous and the physics of the ocean and how the sub moves can also hinder how well you perform the puzzles.
You begin the game with strictly a claw weapon. The claw is used to attack enemies and also grab certain items. One of the biggest fumbles, in my view, is how the claw is controlled (this is absolutely fixable via patch though). The claw is used by tapping a button. So you control the direction in which you want it to be deployed as the way you steer your sub, which can cause problems in throwing items or attacking enemies. A much better solution would have been to map the right analog stick to the claw so you could still move the sub in one direction while firing the claw in a different direction. That would have alleviated some of the game’s frustration. Instead the right analog is mapped to change weapon types, and you cannot customize your control preference.
Finally, let me briefly discuss the enemies of Song of the Deep. The aquatic wildlife you encounter tend to be rather persistent. They hunt you down and usually there are multiple enemies. Even after you think you’ve cleared an area more enemies just spawn randomly. This annoyed me a handful of times early in the game, before I had any real upgrades or new weapons. The jellyfish, while not dealing a ton of damage, are just unrelenting in letting you pass a given area. Extra frustration is added if an area has a puzzle that needs to be conquered and there are enemies lurking with bad intentions (look no further than the bomb clawing areas).
Song of the Deep has a great premise, a great soundtrack, and some wonderful ideas, it’s just not executed to the level we are used to with Insomniac Games. I enjoyed my time with Song of the Deep, but I wouldn't say it’s something that hooked me like any of the previous Metroid titles or the more recent, Axiom Verge (check it out immediately if you haven’t already). I will say that the larger scale boss fights were very well done and were some of my favorite moments of gameplay. If you're a fan of the Metroidvania genre, Song of the Deep isn’t a bad pick up, but it might be worth waiting to see how good Head Lander is if you only have money for one side scroller this month.