Impressions: Song Of The Deep

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.

Song Of The Deep is out now for Windows via Steam and Humble for £11/$15/€15.

From this site

12 Comments

  1. mukuste says:

    7/10 it is.

  2. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Guys, it’s fine.

  3. omf says:

    Played a little bit and was surprised at how difficult/obtuse some early sections felt for a game that should appeal to younger and less experienced audiences.
    It’s inexplicably meh performance-wise on PS4 also.

  4. Retorrent says:

    If you get this game on PC you absolute need to use a controller it will make for a better gameplay experience. The keyboard and mouse controls are not very good at all.

  5. Faults says:

    Insomniac’s games have always been really derivative though. Disruptor was an out-and-out Doom clone, Spyro The Dragon was a clear riff on Super Mario 64, Ratchet And Clank was basically Banjo Kazooie with guns, Resistance was a COD-style military shooter with aliens, Outernauts was pay-to-win Pokemon, Fuse was… well, pretty-much every mid-2000s videogame cliche going.

    Really, they’ve only just started breaking away from that mould with Sunset Overdrive and their VR stuff.

    But yeah, historically, Insomniac are rather excellent at producing derivative games. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Herzog says:

    Thanks for the impressions. Almost clicked the buy button this morning but hesitated. For good reasons! I really like Aquaria, but the videos and screenshots look exactly the same. Dont need a copy!

  7. haldolium says:

    kind of disappointing given that it’s not some first-time development but from insomniac, who should know better how to make fun games.

    I uninstalled it earlier since it was just not fun enough to drag those stupid bombs around.

  8. Ent says:

    Someone remembers Aquaria! *dance a little dance of joy*
    That’s one of my favourite games, and my cousin’s too. She is 10 and doesn’t know any English, but it didn’t stop her (actually it did at a few places, and I was forced to sit and explain to her what happened.)
    Maybe I’ll give a try to this and see if it still scratches the itch. Still prefer the visual style of Aquaria, though.

  9. geldonyetich says:

    Thanks for bringing this one to my attention. I can take one look at it and see it belongs near the top of my wish list, but it fell under the radar for some reason.

  10. Neutrino says:

    Following the Aquaria tag it appears we didn’t ever actually get a WIT on Aquaria, which is probably why I did not find it on my Want To Get List.

    Can we get one please?

  11. PancakeWizard says:

    IMO, all of these play second fiddle to Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. I would like an underwater Metroidvania, but this and aquaria just don’t do it for me.

  12. Nezumi says:

    @Reviewer: It’s not EXP, it’s money. To trade with a hermit crab, because, like most hermit crabs, he likes shiny things. In addition to the coins, there’s statues, pearls, gems… pretty much anything shiny.

    @PancakeWizard: I liked Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, but I actually preferred this. Cute little girl main character, sweet-natured, and nicer art and atmosphere.