Song of the Deep has a lot going for it. A passion project out of the venerable Insomniac Games, the first game published under GameStop’s new publishing venture GameTrust, and an enticingly unfamiliar setting inspired by Irish folklore. Despite all of this, though, I just couldn’t find myself liking it very much.
Merryn is the daughter of a fisherman, a kindly father who regales her with stories about the depths of the sea. When he goes missing, Merryn builds a makeshift submarine and sets out to save her dad. Along the way, you’ll find that there might just have been more than a little bit of truth to her father’s tales.
You control Merryn’s craft in a 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania-style adventure in the deep sea. You start out with a simple claw to attack hostile denizens of the depths as well as grasp, pull, drag, and lob objects in the water. You’ll soon expand your sub’s tool repertoire with rockets and sonar, as well as reinforcing it with armour and turbine upgrades. These customisations are all bought from a charming hermit crab in exchange for collected currency that encourages you to go out of your way and explore hidden nooks and crannies.
There’s a fair amount of combat in Song of the Deep, but the bulk of your time is spent navigating the expansive game world, solving puzzles to do so. Enemies are often just something small to gently impede your progress as you think your way around physics and exploration-driven environmental puzzles. It’s clear that Song of the Deep is aiming for a much more sedate pace than its brethren. You’ve a delightfully calming soundtrack to soothe your ears, a quirky handmade art style, and a lovely Irish-accented narrator to guide you through the story. Unfortunately there are some slight but pervasive frustrations that drag the game down from the pleasant zen-like experience it clearly wants to be.
Chief among these problems is the matter of pace. The submarine controls quite well, but its acceleration and turning arc lean towards the sluggish side resulting in an overall lack of satisfying momentum. Pair this with puzzles that require some deft handling and relatively fine aiming and there’s a fair amount of annoying backtracking to reattempt puzzles that you’ve worked out to the solution to, but must coerce your lethargic craft to meet the dexterity of the challenge. This is most apparent in sections that require you to pick up bombs attached to a chain and carry them to combustible obstructions. The bomb will explode on contact with any wall or object, and will float upwards on its chain when you sit still. Cue repeated runs of ferrying bombs through tight openings, hoping that your angle of approach perfectly lands the explosive in contact with the corresponding area and not scant centimetres away from it. Truth be told, a lot of the puzzles end up feeling like tiresome busywork instead of fun challenges, and there’s very little in the way of originality to them either; you’re most often simply trying to locate what amounts to a key for a door, or approaching problems that other games game throws at you a thousand times before.
There was also an infuriatingly glitched portion of the game; a chase sequence that has you escaping an area while being pursued by “Red Reaper” squid imbued with the ancient bullshit of the insta-kill. I’m not a fan of instant death in any game, but what’s especially vexing about this particular segment was that the Reapers would often teleport forwards and crush me for an unfair game over. The only way to deal with the situation was to retry repeatedly until the game deigned to work as intended.
Alongside mechanical foibles, I also found myself unable to connect emotionally with Song of the Deep’s world and story despite the intriguingly uncommon Irish legend connections. I think this is down to both aesthetics and plotting.
On the visuals side, although Song of the Deep sports a handcrafted aesthetic I didn’t find much charm outside of the character designs (and even those were awkwardly animated). Apart from the warm luminescence of Glow Kelp, environments often feel drab and dingy. I understand that the cliffs of Moher were a major inspiration on the game’s presentation in their muted majesty, yet I feel that a more vibrant and varied colour palette would lend so much more energy and personality to proceedings. There’s even a segment of the game where the narrator coos over the beautiful technicolour locale, and I had to wonder if she and I were looking at the same place.
With regards to the story, in spite of the fascinating legends the game draws from, there’s pretty much nothing original about Song of the Deep’s yarn. It’s a pretty standard Hero’s Journey, and doesn’t give you many interesting objectives other than “fetch the thing that advances the plot”. I’m sure that younger players might find Song of the Deep’s narrative quite captivating, but older players are likely to find the predictability quite boresome. That said, Merryn is a very fine role model for parents who want to introduce kids to a heroine that embodies the virtues of resilience, ingenuity, and kindness.
Alas I did not find myself captivated by Song of the Deep’s tune. The early game of avid secret hunting gave way to a bull-headed rush to mainline the story, with me often ignoring any treasure that was more than slightly out of my way. The game has a certain charm to it, but there were too many little irritations to test the patience until the experience became tedious for me. And that’s a shame, because Song of the Deep has a lot of heart and its lofty potential feels squandered.