After musing about the idea a few years back, gaming retailer giant, Gamestop has finally fully entered the game publishing business this year. Pioneering a new publishing label called ‘Gametrust’, Gamestop has started fairly small with their first project, though not too small, as many gamers still no doubt recognize the name of Insomniac Games, best known for the initial trilogy of Spyro games on PlayStation, as well as PlayStation franchise, Ratchet & Clank and Xbox One-exclusive hit sandbox game, Sunset Overdrive. Despite those big names though, Insomniac has dabbled in smaller projects too in recent years, mostly on PC, though thanks to Gametrust, they’re also bringing their most recent offering to both PS4 and Xbox One, alongside its expected PC version. That offering is Song of the Deep.
Heavily promoted at Gamestop stores, and sold for the very modest price of $14.99 USD/$19.99 CDN, Song of the Deep’s console builds were given Gamestop/EB Games-exclusive retail packages, as well as tie-in merchandise, making it one of the most heavily promoted indie games in recent memory. Despite the heavy corporate advertising initiative by Gametrust/Gamestop though, Song of the Deep still has the heart of a great indie game, and is among the recent resurgence of ‘Metroidvania’-style action-adventure games, which unfold in a single confined world that is seamlessly explored by the player, without any interruptions between areas. The game has also been used as a means of environmental outreach, with the Oceanic Society endorsing it, and advertising official information on how to protect the world’s oceans on the game box and information, tying in with the game’s underwater ocean setting.
This makes Song of the Deep an interesting fusion of product sensibilities. It’s simultaneously a small indie game with a simple love of the art, yet one also treated with the promotion of a bigger corporate product, but not to the point where it skips the chance to do some good for the world as an environmental resource, and not many video games can make all three claims at once. It may be that clashing of sensibilities that leads to Song of the Deep being a good experience, but also not that noteworthy among Metroidvania games however. There are plenty of other indie games in general about young protagonists going to harsh, foreboding worlds to search for a loved one, and while Song of the Deep is certainly a good-looking game, and is at least made interesting by its fully underwater navigation, its gameplay elements are pretty light and unchallenging. If you’re looking for a nice, breezy adventure between two bigger, meatier gaming experiences though, this is still a pleasant and enjoyable offering with charm to spare.
Song of the Deep’s beautiful underwater environments are a lovely sight to behold, and the hand-drawn, storybook style to both these environmental features and the cutscenes looks great on any of the game’s three platforms. The models for both your player character and the enemies are a bit less detailed, but they still fit the atmosphere, and the game in general, allowing the whimsical style to quickly grow on you. Insomniac has definitely made many livelier and more visually ambitious games than Song of the Deep, but it’s satisfying to see that the studio is just as capable at making a world that is serene and awe-inspiring, even one that’s obviously on a smaller scale than many of their most well-known triple-A gaming hits.
In terms of differences between the game’s PS4, Xbox One and PC versions, there aren’t really any major ones to speak of. The PC version even has one very basic set of minimum system requirements that are also listed as the ‘recommended’ requirements, possibly as a gag by Insomniac, making the game very easy to run on even fairly dated computers, so long as they at least have Windows 7’s 64-bit package or above, and at least have DirectX 11 or above. The PC version and console versions look more or less the same, since the PC version doesn’t really offer any real means of cranking the visuals, and likewise, the PS4 and Xbox One versions are pretty indistinguishable from one another. The PS4 version is slightly more recommendable if you own both consoles though, since the Xbox One version seems to suffer from periodic framerate dips a tad more frequently than the other two builds, and for whatever reason, the PC and PS4 versions are patched more quickly than the Xbox One version is. If you’re forced to play on Xbox One, the game is still plenty visually appealing though, and the rare jitters that you’ll occasionally run into on any platform aren’t really worth worrying about.
Song of the Deep easily has one of the best soundtracks in any game that’s released in 2016, indie or otherwise. The music is positively enchanting, feeling simultaneously otherworldly, uplifting, ominous and hopeful. There’s a surprising immersion in the game’s hand-drawn environments, and a lot of that is due to the excellent quality of the music, which many people will be very eager to download and experience at their leisure after finishing the game. In fact, Steam even offers the ability to buy the Song of the Deep soundtrack separately for just over $10 CDN, and it’s no wonder, since it really is a fantastic soundtrack.
The sound effects in the game are fairly understated, and sometimes feel downright muzzled, though this could be intentional, considering the underwater setting. The water-related audio effects are all great though, and they further add to the already potent immersion that the soundtrack creates. There isn’t really any voice acting in Song of the Deep, though a kindly-sounding Irish narrator does speak over the cutscenes, adding a bit more flavour to the game’s storybook style. The music is still the real star of the audio though, and that’s a treat, since video game music takes the stage so disappointingly rarely these days.
Song of the Deep’s presentation is definitely superb, though its gameplay, as I said, is a bit less noteworthy. There are spots of great design in the game, with a few especially satisfying puzzles and hidden goodies to track down, though it’s doubtful that the game will provide much challenge for more experienced gamers. Beyond an especially painstaking puzzle or two, the game’s exploration and progression is very straightforward, and even amassing every achievement/trophy in the game can be done in the span of around 10-15 hours, if you know how to get the hidden ones. There’s not even that many achievements/trophies to earn in the game, disappointingly, and as you can imagine then, there’s no Platinum Trophy for PS4 players to strive for, which is very rare for a game that’s sold at retail.
Still, even when it feels more conventional and straightforward, minus the more distinct underwater navigation, Song of the Deep is certainly a competent 2D Metroidvania game that is enjoyable to play in the moment, even when you’re spoonfed the location of every objective and point of interest on your in-game map, which more hardcore Metroidvania fans might take issue with. The game is also disappointingly light on bosses, with one fairly decent boss battle early on, and then nothing until the final boss fight, which, to add insult to injury, is infuriatingly shallow. Considering the fact that Song of the Deep actually has a great, flexible array of power-ups and upgrades to gradually outfit yourself with, it’s disappointing that the game’s enemy designs are kind of lacking in many places.
When you simply enjoy the environments for what they are, in particular poking around for the game’s large array of bonus Treasures, which can be attained to give you extra money for more upgrades to the submarine you navigate the game world in, Song of the Deep is at its most enjoyable. The later power-ups will make even the most deviously hidden paths visible though, and it’s often very evident which abilities you have to use to get which Treasures in many places, especially when, once again, they’re all helpfully marked on your map from the get-go. You don’t even need every Treasure to accrue all of the game’s submarine upgrades either, even though hardcore completionists might track down all of the riches for the sheer sake of finding everything, which Metroidvania games lend themselves to very well.
The constantly suspect enemy design does threaten to trip up your fun in too many places though. Combat in the game is, again, competent, but the enemy design and combat feels lacking. Most of the enemies either home in on you and try to wear you down with direct attacks, or fire predictable projectiles at you, and there’s not much variation besides those two methods of assault. Early on, enemies are troublesome and can quickly overwhelm you, which may provide some decent challenge, though later in the game, you get outfitted with so many useful power-ups that combat then becomes ludicrously easy. Once you start getting a lot of the upgrades and bonuses, you’ll become virtually unstoppable in many scenarios, unless you’re playing sloppily, or possibly playing on the highest difficulty setting, and even then, Song of the Deep isn’t as challenging as many Metroidvania games are, if a challenge is what you’re looking for.
Fortunately, the power-ups in the game are fun to play with, and when it comes to exploration and puzzle solving, there’s much better variation, and much more enjoyable creativity. You’ll start with a simple extendable claw that can be used to both attack enemies and pick up objects, though later on, you’ll gain new power-ups such as a supply of torpedoes, the chance to give your torpedoes elemental affinities, a speed booster, and a dodge roll, among other things. You even have the option of tracking down health and ‘Tyne’ upgrades that are hidden in various out-of-the-way places, with ‘Tyne’ being the mystical energy that is consumed when you use certain power-ups, in a mechanic that is clearly lifted wholesale from Nintendo’s Metroid games.
The game’s controls are also very simple, even if they are primarily designed around a controller, so PC players will be best served by plugging in an Xbox controller, rather than trying to use the keyboard. The underwater physics do sometimes make movement a little unreliable in combat though, especially early in the game, and even minute navigation in tight spaces is a hassle at times, since you’ll float in any number of random directions when you’re idle. This unreliable floating makes some sense, given that all of the game’s navigation is underwater, but it’s still annoying during the surprising amount of instances where Song of the Deep forces you to try and move very steadily, without deviation from a straight course, lest you get hurt, stuck, or pushed out by a periodic current.
In placing so much emphasis on exploration and puzzles, Song of the Deep is still a fairly enjoyable package overall, though the lacklustre combat still makes it feel like a game that’s not all it could have been. Had the game featured a better array of enemies, more bosses, and a greater sense of actual danger, it might have been a modern Metroidvania classic. Instead, it’s a merely good gameplay experience, rather than a truly excellent one, and that’s kind of disappointing, considering the outstanding pedigree of Insomniac Games. What’s here however is still a great game for relaxing and simply enjoying a pleasant gaming experience. The game doesn’t offer much that you haven’t seen before in the Metroidvania subgenre, when you take away the underwater setting, but the standout presentation helps to compensate for some of the shallow gameplay elements. At least some of the puzzles will wrack your brain nicely though!
Another slight disappointment in the otherwise solid Song of the Deep is that the storyline doesn’t have many twists and turns in it. Like the presentation, it’s pleasant and soothing, especially when that lovely Irish narrator talks over the handful of cutscenes that show up every so often, but there’s not a lot to it. The entire game simply involves Merryn, a twelve-year-old girl who somehow builds an infinitely functional submarine out of a pile of junk (because video games), diving deep into the most treacherous reaches of the ocean to find her missing father. That’s about as deep as the plot gets, and it never really elevates the experience beyond that simple, child-like view, even if that may be intentional.
To be fair though, there are a handful of effectively emotional scenes in Song of the Deep that do tug at the heartstrings, even if the game does frustratingly wimp out of having actual stakes in the end. The first time through, you will still chuckle and even get a bit misty-eyed during the handful of cutscenes that promise a bit more emotional impact than the game ultimately delivers, but on subsequent playthroughs, the story threads just don’t have the same power. Again, you’ll get the sense that Song of the Deep could have had a story that’s better than what it is, had it taken more risks. What is here is still competent for sure, but there have been many other Metroidvania games that have told many better stories, even recently.
It might not be surprising that the first actual Gamestop-published game plays it pretty safe overall, but if you enjoy Metroidvania games, Song of the Deep is worth a playthrough, even if it won’t impress you on the level of other recent indie Metroidvania darlings such as Guacamelee! or Axiom Verge. Song of the Deep won’t set you back very much either, and for a retail release especially, it’s dirt cheap, even here in Canada, where new-release video games made for retail have become ridiculously overpriced lately.
Even if Song of the Deep merely makes par, rather than exceeding it, the fact remains that the game certainly could have turned out a lot worse too. Many people are understandably cynical about Gamestop getting their mitts on games at the development level, but Song of the Deep is an enjoyable game overall, if not a hugely impressive one. To Gamestop’s credit, they also avoided their usual shenanigans of tacky pre-order incentives and forced DLC tie-ins with Song of the Deep, even if they still pushed a bunch of merchandise for an unproven new IP, and, most baffling of all, insisted on a Limited Edition for this unproven new IP, which I seriously doubt was Insomniac’s idea, considering that even their triple-A games like Ratchet & Clank and Sunset Overdrive don’t seem to offer Limited Editions, Collector’s Editions or anything of the sort.
Insomniac has made plenty of better games than Song of the Deep, and hell, Sunset Overdrive and this year’s Ratchet & Clank remake are incredible testaments to the developer’s talents when they’re at their best. Song of the Deep ultimately falls somewhere in the middle of Insomniac’s catalogue, but that’s still better than a good chunk of games. Song of the Deep could have been more than merely good, but, if you’re an optimist like me, it’s never a bad thing to have another enjoyable Metroidvania to help keep the subgenre’s growing comeback going.
- Breathtaking, exotic environmental design
- Outstanding soundtrack
- Charming cutscenes and narration
- Shallow, unsatisfying combat
- Story wimps out of true emotional impact
- Controls don't co-operate when precision is needed