Every now and then, I love to binge painfully depressing, heart-wrenching content. Maybe it’s worth distracting myself with people who are worse off. Maybe the sad content makes the happy highs that much better. Either way, Jo-Mei Games’ debut indie title Sea of Solitude fits the bill to a tee. While it may not break your heart or start the waterworks, it tells a deeply personal, messed-up story about a girl named Kay. The depressing narrative kept me hooked. Despite some gameplay shortcomings, this EA Original will leave you emotionally spent and satisfied.
A Walk in the Flooded Park
Sea of Solitude could be best described as a walking simulator with puzzle elements. The light platforming moments present a pretty minimal challenge. Even if you’re new to video games, you’ll pick it up pretty quickly. Occasionally, you’ll have to maneuver around large monsters or lead smaller ones to a light, which destroys them. Simply put, it’s all an exercise in understanding basic timing and movement.
Navigation can sometimes be a problem. Thankfully, you've got a magic flare. Once launched, this ball of light almost always leads you to your next objective. When it doesn’t, there’s usually no other way to go but forward. Occasionally, you’ll find gatherings of corruption, but if you hold down a button, that corruption gathers in your backpack. Toward the end, Sea of Solitude challenges you by making you maneuver around enemies while absorbing the corruption, but it’s nothing too complex. In other words, this game has a low barrier to entry in order to make its narrative more accessible.
Sea of Solitude's Emotionally Charged Story
After seeing the E3 trailer, it comes as no surprise that Sea of Solitude feels like a game that prioritizes storytelling over gameplay. In this world, lonely humans turn into cursed monsters who roam this flooded world eternally. You play as Kay, a girl in her early 20s who turned into a monster. However, she mostly retains her human-shaped body, while all the other monsters in the world transform into giant animals.
As you work through each major monster, you slowly unravel their human identities, all of who were close to Kay in her human life. It’s up to you to help them find peace as you learn more about their lives. Generally speaking, each encounter is an exercise in helping Kay understand how she fits into other people’s lives. Audio flashbacks retell some stories from when Kay was still human. More often than not, ugly truths come to light. Other times, the monsters speak directly to Kay, showcasing emotions ranging from sorrow to scorn. By empathizing with them, Kay learns more about herself in the process. In a way, it feels like you’re walking her through some out-of-body experiences.
It’s worth noting that Sea of Solitude isn’t for the faint of heart. The story touches on some dark themes, including but not limited to suicide and depression. Jo-Mei handles these themes respectfully. So much so that it wouldn't surprise me if the developers pulled from their own experience. The game has “personal” written all over it, making it feel like a window into the developers’ souls.
Some Narrative Hiccups in Sea of Solitude
With that said, the narrative isn’t without weakness. Lots of the plot points feel ethereally tied together, in ways that you could nitpick. Once you start asking too many questions, certain details stop making sense. Obviously, I won’t spoil anything, but there are certain monsters whose existences don’t fit with the established rule of the world. These creatures weren’t lonely humans beforehand, and they seem to represent different parts of Kay’s mind instead. Their roles in the story pay off well in the end, so you could overlook the plot hole. Nonetheless, it’s still there.
Of course, a good story needs equally good characters. Sea of Solitude delivers varying results on this front, but for the most part, it succeeds in characterizing these people by playing on your empathy. At first, Kay is instantly likable. Her goofy demeanor pairs well with her inquisitive nature regarding the world around her. Her animations give her lots of personality. She flinches when evil monsters get too close, and she’ll hold onto nearby walls for support. In the beginning, her airy personality works well, helping you empathize and relate to her as she goes on this harrowing journey.
The other characters, unfortunately, vary in terms of emotional impact. They don’t get as much character development as Kay, which makes sense considering their overall screen time. Instead, they play powerful foils to our protagonist, mostly through monologues. While this makes their roles important, it also makes them feel less like characters and more like trials for Kay to complete.
The voice acting isn’t consistent here, either. For the most part, Kay’s voice acting hits the mark. The other characters, however, fail to deliver in some cases, which is a shame. Sometimes, it’s the acting itself that doesn’t sound believable, but in other cases, the mixing gets in the way. One line comes out clear, the next falls victim to overactive background noise. These little nitpicks can take away from the vibe of the overall narrative, yet I still wanted to see the story to its completion.
Sea of Solitude Review | The Water's Just Fine
Sea of Solitude isn’t a complete package. I finished the main story in under four hours, all while gathering more than half of the optional collectibles. The gameplay is a means to an end, that end being a heavy-hitting narrative. The story goes for some high-end payoffs that only work if you don’t ask too many questions. Nonetheless, it still has a charm that kept me interested. The 12-person team at Jo-Mei navigated some personal, tough waters to make this game, and that effort shows in this EA Original. If you’re looking for something to cathartically fill an afternoon, Sea of Solitude might be it.
TechRaptor reviewed Sea of Solitude on PC via Origin using a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Despite some shortcomings in the narrative, Sea of Solitude champions its storytelling. It lands solidly on its own two feet, for the most part, and presents a fairly cathartic look at loneliness and depression.(Review Policy)
- Emotionally Cathartic
- Charming Aesthetic
- Likeable Protagonist
- Gameplay Takes a Backseat
- Occasional Narrative Hiccups
- Iffy Voice Acting