There’s no shaking the feeling that Song of the Deep — although a gorgeous game in its own right, with an unique delivery to an old Irish folk tale — reaches too far and doesn’t manage to grasp the greatness of the games it borrows so much from. As with many games nowadays, Insomniac’s Song of the Deep takes notes from Metroid and post-Symphony of the Night Castlevania titles by having you explore a gigantic map filled with dangerous secrets to discover, puzzles to solve and a host of creatures to fight off.
In Song of the Deep, you’re in control of a homemade submarine built by a little girl named Merryn, who is searching for her father who is lost at sea. After years of hearing her dad’s stories about his travels, she discovers that some of his tales hold truth. Luckily for her, she’s not alone during her travels, as she runs across a fallen underwater civilization whose only survivor turns out to be a friendly mermaid set on rebuilding her home. Aside from her, you’ll also meet a hermit crab who sells you upgrades and a couple of different animals who can guide Merryn through dangerous and otherwise inaccessible parts of the map.
There’s also a fair amount in variety for the host of enemy creatures you’ll fight along the way as you guide her deeper into the depths, from electrified jellyfish to huge octopi who just love to rush in and grab you. Interacting with the ocean life is where Song of the Deep teeters between being lovable and at the same time mildly frustrating. On one hand, solving puzzles to help the good denizens of the depths is fun and incredibly inventive. For instance, you’ll come to a puzzle that has you deflecting and combining differently colored light beams, rotating gears and slowly opening up the way forward. Later on, the same concept of deflecting lights will be stacked with having to deal with a constantly rotating level as you chase an uncooperative creature through ancient machinery. These puzzles show off an incredible amount of creativity and ingenuity in design in both the unexpected way they make use of the capabilities of your submarine, but also in how they lead you to a solution without necessarily beating you over the head with explanations.
On the other, there’s the combat. Since the entirety of Song of the Deep takes place in water, you’re forced to fiddle with touchy controls that try to emulate the feel of controlling an underwater craft, but they tend to go a little overboard and end up feeling sluggish and unresponsive, especially when it comes to defending yourself. The waves of enemies that attack you grow increasingly stronger and are much more maneuverable than your sub. Even with the host of possible upgrades you’re able to acquire along the way, you’ll usually make it out of the tougher encounters barely alive. Later on, you’re likely to die repeatedly to cheap attacks that can off you in one or two hits in unavoidable combat arenas that throw wave after wave of enemies with few checkpoints in between.
It’s fairly annoying to get to that sour of a point in the game after such a voyage, after building up your powers and slowly creeping towards an answer to Merryn’s quest as to where her dad might be. Given that Metroid and other old-school games like Blaster Master play such a big part in the way Song of the Deep plays, it’s disappointing to realize that it lacks the versatility that made those titles such a blast to play. Even the upgrades, which are supposed to specialize your sub to suit your style of play, eventually become redundant as you maximize them, thanks to the uneven distribution of currency towards the end of the game. Funnily enough, the parts that have Merryn leave the sub to explore on her own, like the aforementioned Blaster Master, are where Song of the Deep really shines: the bits of gameplay where you don’t have access to any of those powers, but in turn have much tighter controls and faster movement.
Still, Song of the Deep is a gorgeous game. In between gameplay that takes place in a visually varied underwater world that looks unrealistic enough to evoke the feeling you’re treading through a dream, but solid enough in the way it layers in unique visual elements both in the background and foreground, you’re also treated to hand drawn illustrated panels that show off a cutesy aesthetic reminiscent of animated features from decades ago. The story itself is interesting enough on its own thanks to these limited cutscenes, even though the overbearing narration tends grind gameplay to a halt a little too often to describe what you’re already playing through and to further imply what’s implicit to begin with.
In many ways, Song of the Deep is a flawed game that tries its best to make use of an established formula within the limitations of its setting. It results in a four- to five-hour game that starts off well, but eventually falls off and never really picks itself back up. While it’s very far from being a wreck that should be avoided at all costs, expectations set by its beautiful visuals and gripping premise should be tempered before diving into Song of the Deep.