Song of the Deep Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ratchet and Clank Review

Ratchet and Clank, or Ratchet and Clank (2016) as we’ll soon refer to it, is a re-imagining of the series’ first game from 2002. It’s not a remake because it ties into the recent film, which is based on the 2002 original. To make things clear: you’ll play through levels which are sometimes faithful depictions of those found in the original game, and sometimes slightly or wholly reimagined, while the story has been altered to closely fit the events depicted in the movie.

The setting is playful spacefaring science fiction. Ratchet, a mechanic of the Lombax race, is called to action when diminutive robot Clank crash-lands on his backwater planet with terrible news: Chairman Drek of the Blarg intends to tear apart populated worlds to create a new planet to replace his race’s polluted home world. The pair set off to join the idolised Galactic Rangers, led by heroic Captain Quark, in a romp through some of the planets you’ll remember from the first game.

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The first thing to strike me playing thorough Ratchet and Clank was just how beautifully those planets are realised. It’s probably worth mentioning that the 2002 original got me into console gaming in the first place, and while it’s been years since I completed a whole playthrough, it was fascinating to see familiar planets and sequences rendered with current-gen technology. It’s the closest to that “playable Pixar movie” holy grail that’s been sought after for years.

Bright colours from a diverse palette pop in crisply realised alien planets. Cityscapes and less developed locales alike are alive with detail and moving parts that emphasises the feel of a vibrant and lively universe. The trademark wacky character designs are rendered with care, with delightful animation; smear techniques add expressiveness and punch to animations found in enemies’ attacks and your wrench’s swing. This all combines to build one of the most visually impressive games that can be found on consoles.

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Ratchet and Clank uses the reimagined worlds from the 2002 original as a stage for you to traverse and shoot-up vertical playgrounds with your quickly-growing arsenal of guns and gadgets. Along with the spruced-up level designs, this gameplay is similarly tweaked to account for the decade of experience Insomniac accrued making Ratchet games. Shooting aims your shots to wherever you’re pointed while you freely leap about the level, but you’re encouraged to hold the strafe button to lock the camera into more standard over-the-shoulder shooter mode. Jumping in this state makes Ratchet leap in whichever direction you’re moving, allowing him to dodge incoming fire while returning assault in kind.

Ratchet controls well, with each movement feeling tight and well-measured. These games have always controlled well, and Insomniac hasn’t re-invented the wheel unnecessarily; you’re still a leaping agent of death with a helicopter/thruster- equipped robot strapped to your back and a penchant for collecting bolts for currency, so if you found gameplay from previous Ratchet games satisfying then you won’t complain here.

A big part of the Insomniac style comes from the aforementioned arsenal of weaponry you’ll acquire as you strafe and flip through the game’s hurdles. You’ll acquire bolts from slain enemies and smashed crates that can be traded in at Gadgetron vendors in exchange for some new tools of destruction. This release features weapons from throughout the series (the Groovitron, Mr. Zurkon, and multiple variants of the RYNO appear amongst more alumni) , as well as some original entries like the Pixelizer, which turns enemies into voxel versions of themselves. The care that’s gone into this game is even more apparent when you take weapons like the Pixelizer and the Groovitron into account- the latter forces enemies to dance for a short time, for which each enemy in the game has their own dance animation. It would’ve been nice to have seen some of the more interesting weapons from the 2002 original make the cut, like the Tesla Claw and the Suck Cannon, but you’ve still got a diverse array of interesting weapons to play with that gain XP to become more potent with use.

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There’s also a modding system for your weapons that’s tied into a secondary currency you’ll find in your travels, the illusive Raritanium. These crystals can be spent at Gadgetron vendors to unlock nodes on extensive upgrade trees for each gun- you’ll pay one crystal of Raritanium to activate each modular upgrade that’s represented as a hexagonal node. These range from a slight increase in effective range or item drop rates to more potent mystery upgrades that you’ll need to surround with bought mod nodes to unlock.

All the gunplay can get really rather hectic. There’s often a lot of enemies and particle effects onscreen at once, and I often found myself confused in the hubbub which led to a few frustrating encounters. Death tends to land you just before the start of the current encounter, and I’m unsure whether that helps or harms the experience- it does lessen the pain of waiting to jump back in and meet the challenge, but you’re also robbed of much reflective downtime and the fight starts to feel trivial when setbacks of failure are so lenient. For the most part though, encounters are well designed for players to experiment with their full range of weapons and abilities, and frustrating sections whose strife can be drawn back to level design itself are few and far between.

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It is useful to take a break from all the action though, and Ratchet and Clank offers a smorgasbord of distractions and accompaniments to the core gunplay. Jetpack areas, though sparse, kick the vertical aspect of gameplay up a notch by making use of a jetpack acquired midgame to explore sprawling vistas. Rail-grinding returns, which functions as calming eye candy as you leap between airborne rails and bat away explosive mines to progress through and explore levels. Flying missions put you in the pilot’s seat of your ship, pitting you against scores of enemy craft with your machine gun fire and barrel rolls.

More substantial are sequences where you’ll play as Clank in rare occurrences where he’s separated from Ratchet. These are the slowest-paced sections of the lot, where you’ll solve simple puzzles centred around picking up and programming little robots to help you reach your goal. Juggling multiple helpers, switching them between bounce-pad, battery, and bridge-building modes might only gently tease your brain, but it’s a welcome change of pace that only sticks around long enough for you to be ready to jump back into action once again.

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There’s even a couple of collectible-shaped diversions to chase. Gold Bolts return, hidden treasures which can be used to unlock fun rewards like cheats. You’ll also find Holocards from defeated enemies and nooks and crannies of the game world. Collect trios of these and you’ll unlock content ranging from concept art to Omega versions of weapons for the Challenge Mode (this game’s version of New Game Plus). There’s a lot of this side content for fervent players to track down, and it’s another indicator of the amount of effort that’s gone into making this game a worthwhile product.

Sadly, where Ratchet and Clank’s triumphs in the gameplay and visual design departments shine, the game falls flat when it comes to its narrative elements. While levels from the 2002 game are re-rendered almost verbatim, the game’s plot is a far more faithful adaptation of the movie’s version of events. In fact, cut-scenes here actually turn out to be sequences lifted straight from the film- your PS4 even alerts you that it’s stopped recording footage because you’re watching “blocked material”.

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This means that the script from 2002’s Ratchet and Clank is mostly scrapped in favour of the film’s version of the characters. Ratchet is no longer a street-smart, selfish cynic, but rather a stereotypical bright-eyed Yes Man that answers the call to heroism without question. And Clank is no longer really a character at all, in stark contrast to the logical yet naive persona found in the original game. Our protagonists are weirdly quiet out of cutscenes, and most of their cut scene-based dialogue is blandly expository. As cliched as the tropes the original game leaned on are, at least those characters felt like they broke into the third dimension. A lot of the jokes from the original game made me laugh or smile even when I watched a supercut of the cutscenes in preparation for this review. By comparison, this game offers boring facsimiles of once-interesting characters that feel like they’re reciting a bad script in need of a first pass.

Even the series’ tongue-in-cheek humour is weakly represented here; it seems like this game can’t wait a single minute to bleat another ill-conceived jibe or unimaginative referential joke in your direction, and it gets tiring after a short while.

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There’s a really weird disparity of continuity between the game and its film footage cut-scenes, too. Later on there’s a scene where Clank springs a sudden plan into action. When asked what he’s doing, Clank turns to the camera and says meaningfully, “I’m improvising”, to which Ratchet smiles and gives a nod of recognition. This moment lifted from the movie is referencing some exchange that’s only found in the movie, and it sticks out like a sore thumb amongst a number of direct contradictions between events from cut-scenes and the game proper.

It leads to a sort of disconnect between the player and the game. The bland script, the constant stream of misfired jokes, the constant tension between the gameplay and the cut-scenes. In spite of the slavishly reimagined levels, designs and mechanics, the crucial narrative cocoon of the game has been sacrificed to resemble the film, like so many tie-in games before. Ratchet and Clank (2016) is a riotous ten hours of fun whose characters and story just won’t stick with you after the fact, and that’s a shame when you think about all of the love that’s obviously been poured into the game’s design.