Many of us have been in a situation in our lives where we feel lost in our own dark thoughts, uncertain about how we can move on with our lives and convinced that nothing can change. This is a scenario that the monster girl Kay is all too familiar with. Kay, for some mysterious reason, finds herself in a submerged city with a small motorboat as her sole companion - until the water currents start revealing disgusting monsters whose only goal in life is to pull Kay down to the bottom of the sea. Much in this inhospitable world seems to be familiar and nostalgic, but at the same time also remote and frightening. What are these creatures? Why is Kay here? What, or who is she really? It is up to you to find out what is hiding beneath the surface.
Ever since Sea of Solitude appeared at last year's E3, we have longed to get our hands on this mysterious monster title, mostly because of its spellbinding design that brought our thoughts directly to games like Rime. Without saying too much about what happens, this remarkable game world acts as a single great metaphor for Kay's mood, where she soon discovers that her isolation shapes these monsters and that the world is transformed with her mood.
It's an intriguing idea that, sadly, ends up making the game feel more linear than mechanically dynamic and the narrative ends up sinking to the bottom of the metaphorical sea because of the dialogue-heavy storytelling. After having reached the game's end credits you start to understand why the developers decided on going down the dialogue-heavy route, as it reminds the players to listen to themselves and to reach out in times of hardship (this is, of course, a great and important topic to discuss) but at the same time, we found that we were drowning in dialogue at the end, starting to miss the atmospheric, calming silence of games like Journey. They say "a picture is worth a thousand words" and when Kay constantly comments on every little thing, stating the obvious throughout the game, the otherwise enchanting world loses its mystique. It doesn't help that the voice actress isn't great either.
We do really enjoy the narrative angle and what creator Cornelia Geppert is trying to do with Sea of Solitude. Depression isn't easily tackled and through the game's twelve chapters, the player learns that you can't simply flip a switch and cheer up; emotions appear as waves and as humans, we have to learn to accept this inconvenience and learn from it to get through the rough times. The game does offer a depth to the various monsters Kay encounters as they all have been impacted and shaped through their isolation. At the same time, it's hard to feel much at all when Kay's journey leads us to forced drama sequences that also seem to get more and more strained the more you dig into Kay's psyche. The story does have its moments and the unique mark of the developer clearly shows in the game's climax, but emotionally, the story feels too unfocused to really engage the player. In other words, we don't really care about what Kay has lost in her life, simply because we don't really get to know her.
We never got blown away by Sea of Solitude gameplay-wise either. It's a bit banal in its platforming which mostly has the player climb up fire escapes and jump between floating objects. Kay has two primary abilities she can use to light up the darkness enveloping the world; the first ability is a signal of light that can be fired like a flare gun, guiding Kay to where she needs to go. The other ability is, somewhat unexpectedly, Kay's orange backpack, in which she can suck up or gather the worm-like beings that are corrupting the orbs of light throughout the world. These orbs are what you'll need to progress through the story as they hold the puzzle pieces to Kay's psyche, but a lot of the game's puzzles consists of the player holding down a button until something opens or activates, and even though the developer tries its best to add variation in the game's second and third acts, it feels like something's missing content-wise. There has to be more to do than spamming a light beam and listening to families bicker.
The game doesn't offer much of a challenge and is instead more designed to let the player experience the story without getting interrupted too much. This means that there aren't many bigger consequences to letting a red-eyed monster cod chew Kay up and swallow her remains or letting Kay get attacked by tiny demons. You'll simply spawn back to the same location you died at, or if you're unlucky, two platforms away. The hardest aspect, difficulty-wise that is, was the tricky controls that were oddly really slow and during intense moments it was hard not to get frustrated by the speed of Kay's afternoon stroll.
It would have been nice to have had more options when interacting with the faithful little motorboat as well since the boat is Kay's only companion - and what a companion it is. The boat offers Kay such an unspoken sense of comfort that it can illuminate the whole world through its threatening storms. Like a bubble of serenity, it envelopes Kay in soothing sea breezes and the moment Kay leaves the safety of her boat, the world resumes its nightmarish state and the monsters hunt Kay down as soon as she so much as dips her toes in the dark waters. Sadly, you don't get to play around with the boat mechanics and in the end, it's hardly used at all.
The game's aesthetic is one of its more prominent selling points. It's beautiful to witness and gives off warm Wind Waker vibes with its charming but simple graphics. However, it's when you actually start to explore the submerged buildings that you realise just how lifeless the environments really are. Aside from the corrupted orbs of light, exploration just has no meaning. There's very little to do other than to collect messages in bottles and scare seagulls away. The graphics also cease to impress when the lighting effects dim as you go through the game.
We can't say we enjoyed the "gliding" animation, where Kay gets stuck to the nearest ladder or a platform's outer edge as if she was a magnet, nor did we like the fact that all human animations feel unfinished (with Kay's being the exception). The water effects also make the water look like it's made of blocky jelly, however, we do appreciate the way you have to time your movements with the waves. We also have to praise Guy Jackson's incredible music that, when paired with the atmospheric audio effects, makes up for the graphical shortcomings.
To recap, this EA title doesn't quite live up to our expectations, even though there's a somewhat timeless and romantic aura around Kay's psychological expedition. Upon starting the game up, it's almost mesmerising to steer Kay into uncharted waters, but after meeting the first big monster it almost feels like the story concludes - a story that, by the way, had potential to actually yank the heartstrings of players everywhere. Apart from that, the mediocre gameplay steers our thoughts more to the equally mediocre Submerged than to indie gems like Rime, Journey or GRIS. Okay, maybe Sea of Solitude isn't quite that bad, but it's not the emotional roller coaster we'd hoped it would be either.
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