What goes on around a game’s development can sometimes be rather interesting. Song of the Deep is a short Metroidvania created by Insomniac Games. It’s also the first game published by GameTrust, which is the publishing arm of retailer GameStop. You only get one first impression and GameStop is trying to show that they’re offering something different and unique. Song of the Deep sure has the potential to do that, but is GameTrust’s first game something they should have put the money into?
I was charmed by Song of the Deep‘s rather unusual story. Merryn and her father are poor and live in a small home, barely getting by on a fishing venture. One day her father goes out to sea and doesn’t return, and a worried Merryn builds a submarine to try and find and save him. While that’s how the story starts, while underwater Merryn discovers the last member of a race of merpeople named the Merrow, and how they were wiped out by another race called the Fomori. The sea is still populated with remains of both, the Merrow’s grand cities now in ruin while the Fomori’s war machines continue to make threats even after the race is gone. It’s an interesting story, and it’s carried by a strong narrator who feels like a mother reading the story.
I also noticed how lovely Song of the Deep looks. The story is told by some fantastic artwork, the kind that I would expect to see in a high quality graphic novel. In-game it’s lovely, the art style really making every area stand out. The sunken ship graveyard is prominent due to its darker colors and lack of life, something the equally lovely underwater gardens are brimming with. As impressive as the game looks, too much going on at once would cause some slowdown at times, something which was rather disappointing. What isn’t disappointing is the game’s soundtrack, a lovely thing that always fits the mood. The slower vocal-heavy tracks make for beautiful exploration companions, while the more intense ones contribute to the boss fights feeling even more dramatic.
Sadly, the gameplay doesn’t hold up nearly as well. Song of the Deep has you piloting Merryn’s submarine and acquiring new equipment in order to access new areas and solve puzzles. By the end of the game, I had a claw that could grab and throw objects, various elemental torpedos, a boost, searchlights, and a multi-purpose sonar. I could also exit the submarine to squeeze into tight spaces as well, and had a knife for cutting coral and reflecting beams of light. However, using some of these skills was a pain, most notably the claw. Players use the same stick for both throwing and moving, something that I found very awkward. I also had issues with the game not making it clear which objects are throwable. An attempt to throw a crab I found at an enemy ended with it just falling out of my claw.
Combat in Song of the Deep is pretty simple, but enemies aren’t very interesting to fight. The most common enemy is jellyfish that have no real skills other than trying to ram you or electrocute the area around them. Most other enemies don’t do much besides try to get close to you and throw things at you. Only two enemies were unique, and they were both “trick enemy to attack so you can hit their back” types. The only difference is one had a charging attack while the other was ranged. Later in the game, enemies could take out half my health with a single attack, and also it felt like Song of the Deep began to run out of ideas. Areas would consist of little more than going from one enemy arena to the next, and I couldn’t move on until I killed everything. Even a pair of bosses felt similar, as both fights had no strategy involved other than killing all the enemies while the boss sat in the background, then pulling something off of it when it moves to the foreground. The last boss doesn’t even attack, instead just staring at you while you fight enemies.
I think I preferred the combat to the puzzles, and Song of the Deep is also loaded with puzzles. If you enjoy light beam puzzles, then this may be the game for you, as once it introduces them then that’s the most common puzzle type by far. Often when I got to the puzzle the solution would be obvious: I could enter a room and see exactly what mirrors I needed to turn to reflect the light around. The problem is that it takes forever to actually solve. I had to constantly exit and re-enter my sub to get around the area, dodge damaging lights, and spend painfully long amounts of time waiting for the mirror to turn the way I wanted it to after I kept hitting it. It makes the puzzles feel more like a waste of time than anything else. I preferred them to various physics puzzles, though, as they were often just very frustrating. Having to pick up and carry mines through environments that would cause them to blow up if they touched anything just really isn’t fun. Having to push around mines to avoid lasers also isn’t much fun.
It’s worse if you actively go exploring for items too. The story puzzles are annoying, but most of them aren’t bad enough to make me hate them. The optional puzzles that guarded treasures were worse. They required navigating the mines through perilous narrow corridors or shining light beams through complicated formations. Most of the time the reward was an excess of coins to spend on upgrading my ship, but there are a few hidden extra attack abilities, along with health and energy upgrades. Nothing that I felt was unique enough to warrant spending so much extra time trying to find.
A frustrating chase scene serves as a great example of everything wrong with Song of the Deep. The mechanics just do not respond nearly quickly enough for the precision that the game demands and annoying quirks constantly get in the way of the chase. I could not turn the corners fast enough, I could not shoot the torpedo soon enough, my boost did not recharge fast enough (and also doesn’t restore when you’re killed, meaning every time I died I let myself get killed a second time so I could try again with a full boost.) The enemies chasing would always hit 100% of the time if they started the attack animation because I became locked into it, which became especially frustrating when they would glitch and attack through walls or from distances they shouldn’t be able to hit from. The entire sequence will become my go-to when talking about designing sections that don’t fit the mechanics in the game. The section was so poorly designed that I only beat it because the game continued to slow down the pursuing enemies until they were at a standstill, and even then I still died a few times because occasionally they would spawn on top of me.
I’m not even sure if the slowing down was supposed to happen or not. Song of the Deep has its fair share of glitches that bothered me quite a bit. Enemies would get trapped inside of walls, items wouldn’t be able to get picked up, and the game would sometimes display the wrong objectives. It felt like Song of the Deep was still in beta at times. One particularly annoying bug saw the game freeze for fifteen seconds whenever I left it paused for an extended period. I didn’t run into anything game breaking, but it was still a pain having to deal with the bugs I did find. At least I only ran into a single hard crash, and it was during the credits for some reason.
This is the sad thing about Song of the Deep. It has a great story, great artwork, a great soundtrack, but it can’t hold up anywhere else. What starts as a beautiful, simple Metroidvania dissolves into a frustrating one that commits the biggest sin of any Metroidvania: it makes exploration not fun. Some people may find this song beautiful, but I’d only suggest it if you don’t have any others to listen to.
Song of the Deep's story is touching, its art is beautiful, and its soundtrack is lovely, all of which come together to make a visual treat. Then I had to actually play it and I found it frustrating at some times, boring at others, and quite glitchy. Some may be able to forgive it, but I can't see many doing so.