Insomniac Games made a name for itself with the Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet and Clank and Resistance series on PlayStation platforms, but Xbox owners probably know them best for Sunset Overdrive, an open-world title and one of the Xbox One's best exclusives. Clearly Insomniac is a studio capable of making great games, especially when they revolve around jumping and/or crazy guns. But with Song of the Deep, a passion project endeavoring to give Chief Creative Officer Brian Hastings a protagonist to inspire his daughter, the studio has ventured outside of its wheelhouse.
A Metroidvania title in which a girl pilots a submarine while searching for her lost father, Song of the Deep, then, is a chance for the team to show what it can do within the constraints of a 2D design and sans platforming or an insane arsenal of weapons. The results are, unfortunately, not up to the high standards Insomniac has set for itself through many of its previous releases. While Song of the Deep certainly has some redeeming qualities — an attractive underwater maze of a world and occasionally excellent puzzles, to name a couple — the experience is too often dull or frustrating to recommend in full.
Here's what I liked:
When Samus met Alucard…underwater — Who wouldn't get excited at the thought of a new Metroidvania game from a talented studio? No one I want to know, which is why Song of the Deep has been on my radar since its announcement. The game does deliver some of the staples gamers have come to expect from the genre and throws them under the sea. On her quest to find her missing father, the young Merryn must navigate through a branching world with distinct areas that don't necessarily have to be completed linearly. Certain paths are, however, blocked off until the player returns with new abilities. The fact that the entire game takes place underwater adds an interesting twist to this tried-and-true Metroidvania formula, and it works well for the most part, with jumps and double jumps being replaced by submarine boosts and, uh, longer boosts. Your movement and abilities are plodding and dull in the beginning, but you eventually gain a solid move set and things pick up a bit. Insomniac even gives the beloved Metroid morph ball what is perhaps its best homage, with sections requiring Merryn to exit the safety of her protective submarine and swim through small spaces to find treasures or open the way forward. These stretches leave you feeling vulnerable and frightened, but you'll usually find the allure of what secrets might lie hidden behind these tight pathways strong enough to inspire you to overcome your fear of leaving Merryn exposed.
Storybook visuals — Song of the Deep looks great. Its hand-drawn world is filled out with sunken ships, an undersea garden, the remains of an ancient civilization and more than one dark and foreboding monster lair. You'll come across colored lasers that reflect and refract off mirrors and bend around multiple rooms in complex webs to create memorable puzzle designs. Even little touches like the way moving pillars are animated as they smash against each other — and potentially Merryn's sub — make for sights that stick with you. There are a few stretches of pedestrian blue water with nothing particularly interesting to look at, but by and large this is a very attractive-looking game.
A few great puzzles — The second half of the adventure presents players with several smart and engaging puzzles, the best of which involve the aforementioned laser beams. One tasks you with aligning a cleverly arranged series of mirrors as you move room-by-room up a tower with blockages that only open when you can make the colored beams hit their corresponding receptors . The puzzle becomes increasingly complicated with each new room, and it's impressive that Insomniac was able to create something cohesive out of what initially appears as a total mess of beams. The studio even does a pretty good job of using colors different enough that colorblind players (such as myself) are (mostly) able to differentiate between the beams. This same type of puzzle is later revisited with the added twist of a room that reorients itself, but Insomniac smartly moves away from its laser puzzle design after this before it can outstay its welcome. Unfortunately, it doesn't replace it with anything similarly compelling.
Here's what I didn't like:
Failure to launch — For approximately the first hour and a half I was extremely disappointed by Song of the Deep. The game feels like Metroidvania-By-Numbers during this early time, showing a lot of the core elements that have made numerous Castlevanias and Metroids exciting but doing little to move the genre forward, instead seeming content merely with the idea of taking things beneath the waves. All of its progenitors start players off with a very basic set of weapons, armor and abilities, but Song of the Deep goes especially spartan, electing to not give the player a weapon, a speed boost or the main tool with which to interact with the world for what feels like an age. Imagine if Samus had to spend the beginning of each game without her basic blaster or simple jump, and that's pretty much what you have here. Even when you do get these abilities there just isn't much that’s inventive about the early level design, obstacles or enemies.
Occasional frustrations — As mentioned, things do eventually pick up, and there are some original and exciting moments later in the game. Unfortunately, the parts in between them are often boring or, worse yet, just plain frustrating. A section that requires players to navigate through pitch black waters while avoiding invincible, one-hit-kills enemies is actually fun in a "Oh god, please don't let them see me!" kind of way. But a later section that sees you fleeing from the same enemies while also avoiding environmental obstacles and switching back and forth between missile types eliminates the fun from the equation and leaves only frustration. The irritation is compounded by the fact that the control mechanism for switching missile types works just fine when you have time to spare, but it's basically a crapshoot when you have only a split second before your pursuers hoover you up to your doom like the world's strongest and most waterproof vacuum cleaners.
Lack of new ideas — Song of the Deep's biggest problem is that there is too often not anything original and/or compelling to do. You'll often backtrack through areas fighting the same enemies you've already killed; you'll frequently be locked into a room and have to clear all the enemies in order to move forward; and you'll scour the ocean depths for coins to spend on upgrades. None of these concepts are necessarily bad at a glance, and each have worked well in countless prior games. The problem is that, other than putting it all underwater, Insomniac doesn't do much new and exciting with any of them. It's disappointing that the combat in a game from the same studio that previously brought us the acid sprinkler, morph-o-ray and auger rifle is so prosaic. I can't help but feel as though the reason you're given so few abilities and so little to do early on is that Insomniac needed to spread things out, because there just isn’t much here.
Song of the Deep occasionally shows flashes of promise, but ultimately they're just that: flashes and promises. Too often it feels like Insomniac was just going through the motions, leaving players with something of an empty shell of a new and impressive adventure. The result is surprising, given Insomniac's past hits and Hastings' statements about how excited he and the team of 15 of the studio's more than 200 developers were to work on this project. And it is exciting whenever a big studio tries something different and original; unfortunately, there isn't enough of either of those qualities present in Song of the Deep.
Score: Reader's Choice
Song of the Deep was developed by Insomniac Games and published by Game Trust Games. It will release on July 12, 2016 for $14.99. A copy was provided by Insomniac Games for review purposes.