Indie Game of the Week 18: Song of the Deep

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I've been corrected before now about referring to these games as "Indie" when that isn't always the case. This week's game, Song of the Deep, was put together by Insomniac Games, the decidedly non-independent developers behind the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance franchises, and published by a subsidiary of GameStop in a bid to carve out a piece of the digital distribution-exclusive market before the whole enterprise leaves their brick and mortar game delivery system high and dry. You might recall the stories concerning this gambit from their regular mentions on the Beastcast, where those Beautiful Beast Boys' improvisations drag in an unsuspecting Ross Perot and any number of hypothetical, easily beguiled moms. Personally, none of that really matters to me beyond the minor historical significance of a major game retail chain dipping their toes in the video game development business; it was more interesting when Burger King did it, if you ask me.

What does matter to me, though, is the notion of an Indie spacewhipper developed by a studio with the pedigree of Insomniac Games. The last time I encountered a game of this type with this level of budget was the thoroughly gorgeous Ori and the Blind Forest, which was helped into being by the deep pockets of Microsoft Studios. Song of the Deep has an aquatic theme, so I was also curious to see how similar it was to Derek Yu's and Alec Holowka's early Indie hit Aquaria. Not to get ahead of myself, but it turns out it shares quite a lot of that game's DNA, along with a healthy dose of Fuelcell's Insane Twisted Shadow Planet. To be fair, there's only a certain amount you can do with a submersible and an ocean of beautiful coral and mysterious ruins, and both of those games are relatively ancient (ten years old and six years old respectively) to the extent that I'm past ready to try out another game with that theme.

Been a while since I've played a game with this many light refraction puzzles. I guess the developers figured they were overdue for a return too, in addition to games set underwater.
Been a while since I've played a game with this many light refraction puzzles. I guess the developers figured they were overdue for a return too, in addition to games set underwater.

Song of the Deep talks the talk well enough. The map helpfully points out collectibles but not, exactly, how to get them or what you might need; the kind of balance I can appreciate, especially when I'm whizzing around the map looking for the last few items for 100%. It has fast travel warping; it doesn't arbitrarily block off areas even if there's still collectibles in there (a surprising amount of these games still commit that cardinal spacewhipper sin); the powers are briefly tutorialized as soon as you get them with at least a few instances nearby to test it out; enemies are of reasonable challenge on the medium difficulty setting, if a bit too persistent with their constant respawning; and given how most aquatic vehicles tend to control in any video game context, I'd say the game acquits itself well enough. I've never been fond of when you have to push back against water currents, never knowing if you have enough steam to conquer it or if there's some extra upgrade you need for that extra bit of oomph, but I suppose that comes with the territory. Developers, especially ones with decent art teams, are always drawn to make these attractive aquatic exploration games - Abzu was another recent one - despite the fact that no underwater-based game ever made (or those with infrequent underwater stages, like many Super Marios) has actually been fun to control. It's often more the case that designers and programmers have to mitigate the frustrations inherent to subaquatic movement as best as they are able. At least you don't get hurt swimming into walls and stalactites all the time in Song of the Deep, because the loose inertia means it'll happen a lot.

But overall, it seems like a perfectly serviceable one of these. I suppose my dissatisfaction comes from how closely it adheres to the blueprints of those that came before, with no particular spark of its own. Its romantic voiceover prose - romantic in the sense of the ocean being this deep and alluring frontier rather than, you know, fishpeople doin' it - seems lifted right out of equally lyrical and melancholic Aquaria, as does most of how its map and traversal abilities work. Meanwhile, the sub's array of weapons and tools appear to be right out of Insane Twisted Shadow Planet, down to a versatile grappling hook which is used for both combat and for carrying puzzle objects around, as well as elemental torpedoes which balances out their overpowered nature by requiring a finite amount of energy (the game calls this "tyne") that regenerates slowly. It all feels very familiar, and I'm while I'm loath to make any kind of insinuation that this game did its homework a little too well, I suspect it's simply a matter of not being able to find a new angle within this particular sunken set-up. With all the aquatic exploration games with a vague environmentalist theme released between Ecco the Dolphin and now, this ocean has perhaps been overfished.

The story's fine even if it's intended for a much younger audience than myself, but that Scottish voiceover lady pipes up far too often. Also, that Walt Disney-style capital W sure is telling of this game's aspirations.
The story's fine even if it's intended for a much younger audience than myself, but that Scottish voiceover lady pipes up far too often. Also, that Walt Disney-style capital W sure is telling of this game's aspirations.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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