Insomniac Games, presently most famous for their Ratchet & Clank games on PlayStation, have released – with minimal fanfare – a 2D underwater Metroidvania on Steam called Song Of The Deep [official site]. So, someone played Aquaria and Ori & The Blind Forest. Here are my thoughts:
We tend to pick between two different titles for our reviews. “Wot I Think” and “Impressions”. It occurs to me that neither makes any specific sense outside of our own universe, but it tends to be games we’re ready to have our final say on get a WIT, while “Impressions” is more hedging our bets – we likely didn’t finish the game, or didn’t spend as long with it as we might want, or couldn’t bear to carry on, or simply wanted to get something written at that point. There’s no rules to it. We’re lawless. In this instance, it’s a little of not having finished it, and a lot because the pun pleases me. Because wow, Song Of The Deep feels like an impression of another game.
Which doesn’t speak of its quality by any means! I’ll speak of that below. But it’s impossible to shake the feeling that you’re playing an impression of Aquaria. It’s… it’s the same game! Not literally, obviously, but it’s uncanny. With Ori’s visual style. Not a minor indie game, either – in 2007 it won the Grand Prize at the IGF awards.
The premise is tweeness condensed down to a super-twee plasma, then titrated into hypertwee dark energy cubes – a girl and her pa live by the sea, and he tells her fantastical tales of the oceans when she goes to sleep. But one night, wouldn’t you know, he doesn’t come home – so off she pops into the water in a homemade submarine to find him. And off you drift into the underwater world that – good heavens – contains all the characters and creatures from your dad’s fantastic tales! Who ever would have thought.
And what follows is an entirely functional Metroidvania, with a mild glitchy tech problem. You can go this way, but you can’t go that way yet, so you go this way and get the thing that means you can go that way. It really does feel that mercenary in its delivery of the genre, no subtlety, no surprise, just: “Well, I can’t swim against that current yet, but I guess I’ll be able to soon enough.” That’s fine! That’s not a problem. But it’s not inspiring stuff.
Your sub is immediately equipped with a rapidly extended grabby hand, which can also be used to biff enemies and walls. It’s incrementally improved as you go, depending upon when you choose to apply such upgrades with gathered XP (which is literally giant floating coins, because I guess they didn’t want to think of something else). You soon get a light for making jellyfish get all squinty and annoyed, and some better propulsion for short bursts of bonus speed.
The controls are an odd factor. They’re perfectly nice underwater controls, the drift you’d expect, floaty and light. So it’s really odd that they so often designed a game around them that requires the precision controls you’d expect on dry land. Grabbing at bombs on the end of inexplicably immalleable chains and attempting to manoeuvre them such that they stop near a blockage you want to splode is… well, it’s not “fun”.
But the game is pleasant enough. That’s not damning with faint praise. It’s faintly praising with faint praise. You muddle along, doing what you do in such games, not being surprised by anything. The creatures are very lovely, if sort of familiarly lovely, and it’s really rather fun to boff jellyfish to death with your mechanical claw (and in the game). But oh my goodness, Aquaria. Seriously, this can’t be cosmic coincidence, can it? I’ve even gone and checked other reviews, and not one I’ve read mentions the game. Derek Yu was one of the designers – the Spelunky guy! I’ve even double-checked that Alec Holowka and Derek Yu don’t moonlight for Insomniac – I’m fairly sure they don’t. This is weird! I’m not going to list all the ways they’re similar, because I realise the more I harp on about this, the more I seem to be accusing it of something that I’m not. (Although I can’t not mention that both games have a soft-spoken female narrator telling the tale as you progress, curvy corridors with strong currents, an emphasis on evasion as well as attacking.) Instead it’s more pertinent to point out that while Aquaria had the absolutely gorgeous music/colours-spell element, Song Of The Deep has… the grabby claw?
It’s fine! It’s a nice enough game! It’s just really odd that, well, no one seemed to notice.
It’s also really strange that this is a game by Insomniac. It seems to demonstrate none of the beautiful finesse found in the Ratchet & Clank games, nor the slick power of the Resistance series. In fact, it doesn’t use their own in-house engine, but Unity. And they don’t appear to have been entirely comfortable with it – it’s twitchy, blippy, and when there’s lots happening on screen, it slows down on a top-spec PC.
So, yes, it’s fine! It’s wildly derivative, which is such a peculiar thing to see from such a developer, but I’m glad it exists. It’s just… well, it’s fine.