You can usually spot an Insomniac Games title from miles away. Famed for off-the-wall weaponry, colourful, larger than life characters and bombastic action, the Ratchet & Clank and Sunset Overdrive developer has a uniquely bonkers style that has kept them at the top for decades. But their latest title, Song of the Deep, takes a much more sedate and cerebral approach, and the result, while refreshing, is a bit of a mixed bag.
It’s a deep-sea Metroidvania adventure game following Merryn, a young girl who constructs a submarine to search the ocean for her lost father. The premise itself sounds fairly trite, but Insomniac add wonderful colour to the story by setting it on a fantasy world where the seas are home to graceful mermaids (or Merrows), frightening monsters, and the remnants of an ancient, extinct civilisation whose steampunk technology still litters the deep.
Despite the nautical setting, the art style seems to take cues from Ori & the Blind Forest. The enchantingly beautiful world displays a combination of dark blues, deep greens and lashings of colour and brightness. Distant sea creatures, whales and sharks and giant squid, add depth to the 2D plane, while a rainbow’s worth of vibrant, mesmerising hues play against one another to bring the ocean to life. Merryn’s sub looks tiny even compared to the jellyfish, while inventive creatures like the Nautiloceros and Reaper Squids seem terrifyingly huge.
Surprisingly, combat plays a large part in Song of the Deep. The sea is teeming with hostile monstrosities and the sub is equipped with a handful of weapons for defence and, more often, puzzle solving. The primary weapon is a claw that can lift items, punch enemies and obstacles or latch onto certain objects to operate chain levers or moor the sub against powerful currents. Along the way you’ll unlock a magma torpedo that can melt away ice, and a freeze bomb that can rapidly cool hot surfaces and manipulate puzzle objects.
Now and then, the enemies will come at you in waves, hurling projectiles and zapping the water around them. They’re aggressive and tough, and it’s one area where Song of the Deep tends to struggle. The lack of slick maneuverability is an issue, and it can be hard to dodge enemy attacks when the screen is full of them. The sub is sturdy and the checkpoints fairly plentiful, but it’s a definite weak area nonetheless.
More impressive are the puzzles. Certain elements are overused, and some puzzles are very fiddly — particularly those that involve hitting a bomb with a freeze torpedo and guiding its now-bouyant form upwards through traps and over obstacles — but on the whole they’re inventive and fun to tackle. Coloured lasers and mirrors feature heavily mid-game, while you’re often forced to leave the comparative safety of the sub and take Merryn out alone to fit into narrow spaces or manipulate objects with her coral knife. Sometimes you’ll need to hold something with the sub’s claw while Merryn swims under it, or use the vessel as a weight to activate switches. There’s a certain joy to leaving the cockpit and venturing out as the little girl, although the peril is far greater.
The more you play, the more abilities you unlock, and before long you’ll be able to revisit earlier areas to mop up items you missed first time through. Secrets are everywhere, some increasing your health and energy (called “tyne”) and others reward you with money to spend on upgrades. Merryn’s beautifully narrated quest is a compelling one, her heartfelt plight often enough to push you on through some of the more punishing difficulty spikes.
Some of the conundrums can be pretty frustrating, particularly when you can see the solution but can’t make the sub do what you need it to, and there are several tricky puzzles that reward you with nothing but a bit of gold, which you’ll find in abundance anyway. A late-game chase sequence with a pack of unkillable Reaper Squids is a nightmare thanks to the sub’s lack of grace, stingy checkpoints and the enemy’s habit of spawning out of the walls right behind you. It’s incredibly infuriating, to the point where it almost mars what has gone before.
While we’re on the subject, the inclusion of a couple of boss fights seems arbitrary, especially when an early encounter with a giant sea spider is more interesting than the disappointing final battle. There’s enough to do in Song of the Deep without squeezing in bosses that seem to exist just for the hell of it. Luckily such complaints are balanced by Merryn’s story, which mixes its own deep mythology with the inspiring tale of a lone young girl searching for her father in an unknown world.
Insomniac’s nautical adventure ultimately ties the laces on its own concrete shoes, weighing itself down with inconsistent difficulty and a few misfiring ideas. But it’s testament to the developer’s experience that it still manages to be massively compelling and likeable. Beautiful, charming and touching, Song of the Deep might not ever reach the emotional depths or giddy heights of Ori & the Blind Forest, but it does provide an enjoyable, worthy adventure of its own despite its issues.
Inventive puzzles and enemies
Infuriating difficulty spikes
Can be fiddly to control