Song of the Deep is an incredibly beautiful game

The amount of places you can explore through games these days is nearly limitless. You can strap on a rifle and witness the horrors of D-Day firsthand, you can put on your wizard's hat and act as an errand boy for a whole variety of fantasy races, and you can even become a space-trucker, endlessly delivering cargo between the stars. What you can't do very often, however, is explore the sea.

This is where Insomniac's Song of the Deep, a metroidvania-styled action adventure, comes in to play. Not only does it allow you to dive below the waves and observe the ocean's splendor, it manages to do so in a way that is both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, a notion you will only truly come to understand when you're swimming through the dark, open ocean with monstrous giants for company. Whether its any good or not though, that is a question that's not easy to answer.

Video version of this review (12 minutes)

While Song of the Deep may have me conflicted on many things, its without a doubt an extraordinarily beautiful game. Each and every single area you will visit is filled to the brim with little details, background elements that subtly tell their own narrative, and most importantly, plenty of color to keep the whole experience a cheerful one. You will be able to visit a reef where thousands of sunken ships lies, ruins of a civilization long past its prime, a deep abyss where no light has ever penetrated, and even the lair of an underwater spider!

With each zone transition comes a change in music as well, and I have to give special credit to the composers as they have managed to match the mood of every single area perfectly. While you're still in fairly shallow water and everything is bathed in sunlight, the music will be constantly upbeat and cheerful, but when you descent amidst the ruins it will turn to a more melancholic tune, and when you swim out into open water where you can't even see a single landmark around you, the music will be equally as foreboding as your situation. All of this combined makes Song of the Deep a rather spectacular experience as the presentation is fully capable of getting you immersed, excuse the pun, into the world and its environments.

Song of the Deep features some lovely graphics

Amidst the ruins

The way you transition from zone to zone, at least before you've unlocked the entire map, is by completing a couple of challenges and puzzles, which is unfortunately where the first problem arises. For reasons unknown, Song of the Deep does not feature a way to change your controls, not in-game nor through a config file somewhere on Steam. While this is a massive issue on its own since no two players are truly alike, the problem becomes even bigger when you figure out that Song of the Deep was designed with a controller in mind, not a keyboard and mouse.

Nowhere is this more apparent then when trying to carefully pilot your underwater craft as its next to impossible to keep it steady, no matter how many hours in FPS games you might have and how perfect your tracking in Overwatch is. The reason behind this problem is that the mouse does not snap back like a thumb-stick would, so trying to constantly orient the ship without accidentally pushing your mouse slightly off course and your craft spiraling uncontrollably is an exercise in pure frustration.

Song of the Deep features a lot of issues with controls

Don't try to dodge the enemies as you're highly likely to get hit, just run!

Thankfully, this is not actually that big of a deal since Song of the Deep is a fairly easy game, and as such you can afford to be slightly clumsy with your ship. However, while Song of the Deep might not feature ridiculously powerful enemies that will punish your lack of control, it instead has puzzles that rely on precise object manipulation and expertly timed movement, two things that are needlessly difficult with a mouse.

The puzzles themselves are thankfully not that bad, I'd even go as far as to say that some of them are quite cleverly done, especially when you have to use timing, reflexes and a bit of quick thinking to get ahead. Unfortunately, while the majority of them are quite enjoyable, the few that are frustrating are so hair-pullingly frustrating that they sour the entire experience. The most aggravating example of this, at least for me, is a series of puzzles that rely on you picking up a mine by a long, uncontrollable tether and then escorting it though a needlessly complicated maze to a gate you need to blow up. As you can imagine, the combination of bad controls, floaty underwater movement and the need to guide an object that trails a couple of meters behind you is a recipe made in hell itself. I'm not proud to admit this, but I once spent well over 15 minutes trying to do the simplest puzzle in the world, simply because I couldn't for the life of me drive in a straight line for more than two seconds.

Song of the Deep has some very bad controls

Tight gaps and poor controls do not mix very well

When not guarding the transition to the next zone, these mini-puzzles serve as a way for you to unlock more loot, and this is where Song of the Deep's metroidvania influence comes into play. From the very beginning you will have free access to almost the entirety of the map, though numerous portions of it will be locked off until you can either purchase or pick up the upgrade you need in order to deal with that obstacle. Its a simple principle that has been proven to work in numerous other games, and I'm happy to say that it works perfectly in Song of the Deep as well.

Its a genuine joy to return back to previous areas, this time around armed with a dozen more tools, and then finish up exploring all of the locations you were so cruelly denied from entering before. What I appreciate the most about this, however, is that its often not as simple as using your new tool to just blast open the path to the treasure. Instead, the newly opened path usually contains secrets and puzzles of its own, and that's an excellent little feature as it keeps the whole exploration fresh and interesting.

Song of the Deep features some interesting puzzles

Oh boy...

The only issue here is that the majority of the rewards are either health upgrades or currency, both things you will have more than enough of by the mid-game. The health upgrades should be self explanatory so I won't waste your time with those, but the currency is used to buy various upgrades for your ship, everything ranging from combat improvements to progression based skills such as speed-boosts and so forth. On first glance this whole system is an excellent idea as it allows you to further improve upon your favorite weapons and ship features, but after a while you will come to realize that nearly all of the upgrades are pointless, and the ones that aren't are basically mandatory.

You could upgrade your extendo-claw to the point where its capable of easily taking down nearly every enemy, or you could upgrade your propulsion and shielding instead and just avoid any danger before it even comes near you, on top of being able to move around incredibly quickly. You could upgrade your torpedoes so they're more powerful and less draining on your resources, or you could simply upgrade your resource regeneration and thus effectively improve the strength of every single special weapon you own.

While I don't mind the upgrades being slightly on the pointless side, the problem is that most of the exploration is centered around unlocking these new tricks and tools, so when they're not exciting, the exploration suffers from it as well. Don't get me wrong though, I still stand by my statement that the exploration is truly wonderful, but it could've and would've been so much better if these upgrades were a little more exciting and a little less "straight up damage boost" type of improvements.

Song of the Deep Hermit crab trader

The trader is a friendly hermit crab, which might just be the most adorable thing ever.

Another reason most of the upgrades feel somewhat pointless is the simple fact that they primarily relate to combat. Fighting in games such as Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night is the highlight of the experience, so any upgrade you gain that affects your mobility or battle prowess is an excellent thing, but in Song of the Sea the focus is primarily on exploration and undersea puzzling. As such, most of the enemies you will encounter can be completely avoided, and with less than desirable controls you're going to be doing just that.

Why risk fighting off a whole horde of angry jellyfish that are capable of chopping half of your health with each swing when you can simply run away and never deal with them again? Why bother engaging a giant enemy crab when it takes around 5 seconds for it launch its attack, 5 seconds you can use to steal whatever loot it was guarding and then continue on your merry way. If you do decide to fight, however, the combat mechanics are simple but satisfying enough, its just that the controls are so unreliable when it comes to precise movement that you're going to be mostly relying on the tried and true method of running away.

Song of the Deep mini boss

You can even run away from some of the mini-bosses!

The bosses on the other hand are actually quite exciting, and most importantly, designed in such a way that they offer a fair but rather difficult challenge, one that will most likely take you numerous tries to complete. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of bosses in the entirety of Song of the Deep, a reality that saddens me greatly given how the very first boss you meet, a terrifying underwater spider, is such a fun little fight that perfectly encapsulates everything you've earned within the first hour or so.

While I'm aware this would require a lot more development time, I would've preferred it if Insomniac removed some of the pointless end-game "arenas" where you just fight off a whole bunch of enemies, and replaced them with a couple of bosses and mini bosses, because they offer the sort of culmination a good metroidvania needs. As it stands, Song of the Deep is a joy to explore, but there is very little substance to it once the initial charm has run out due to yet another annoying puzzle.

Song of the Deep's underwater spider boss

More of these types of encounters please!

The final thing I wanted to talk about is the one element that ties all of these things together - the story. Its neither particularly original or complex, but what it does offer is a charming backdrop to all of the exploration. Its told through either hand-drawn custscenes or brief conversations in-game, and while its quite clearly written with younger audiences in mind, its still an enjoyable story as it follows your classic fairy tale formula. 

To top it all off, the narrator who does all of the voice acting and storytelling is simply amazing and she manages to bring so much emotion into every line that its hard not to leave Song of the Deep with a smile on your face. The only complaint I can even level against this portion of the Song of the Deep is that I feel there's not enough commentary while you're simply exploring new regions, as all of the dialogue seems to center around areas that strictly progress the story. Though to be fair, that's not much of a complaint at all, but rather more of a simple request to make the whole journey an even more interesting one.

Closing Thoughts

Song of the Deep is an astonishingly beautiful game set it one of the most unique environments known to gaming - the deep and unknown expanses of the sea. While its truly a joy to explore the underwater ruins and the abyss that lies below, the unfortunate reality is that Song of the Deep suffers from some fairly extensive issues with controls and a difficulty curve that is basically a flat line with a single spike near the end.

Its not a bad game, and I certainly enjoyed my eight or so hours with it, but its so full of untapped potential that it makes me genuinely sad to see it be so... average, especially when it could be beyond amazing. To put it simply, Song of the Deep is a game you play once and never again, so if you're a fan of exploration and that's a concession you're willing to accept, then Song of the Deep might just be what you're looking for. On the other hand, if you're a fan of the metroidvania genre and expect to replay this over and over again with slightly different results each time, I'm afraid you're going to have to return to Symphony of the Night instead.

Song of the deep features underwater spiders