Here we have a gamified exploration of depression, loneliness, and problems we all face that's light on gameplay and heavy on emotion.
I love a game that can draw emotion out of me. For example, What Remains of Edith Finch is such an amazing game because it's a rollercoaster of emotions with loads of whimsy mixed in while others like Telltale Games' The Walking Dead series fill the space between tense, impossible choices with the entire gamut of possible emotions. Even titles like 2018's God of War manage to take moments that could otherwise be filler and turn them into dramatic, touching scenes between a father and son learning to bond. So, when Sea of Solitude was announced, I was all for it.
Sea of Solitude is a game of exploring not only a submerged world but also the emotions of loneliness and depression. You play as Kay, a woman who has been thrust into a dark world where nearly everything is submerged. Not only that, she's somehow turned into a monster! Before she can try and figure things out, she meets 2 vicious monsters: one who uses insulting words and one who will devour you if you're not careful. Luckily, there's an equally mysterious glowing creature helping you out and with its assistance, maybe you'll be able to survive this living nightmare after all.
Sea of Solitude is a beautiful game and everyone who walked by the TV while I was playing remarked on how gorgeous it is. This is particularly amazing considering how much of the world is shrouded in darkness. The world manages to balance darkness with light as well as beauty with the ordinary very well but unfortunately, it doesn't balance its story with the gameplay quite as well for most of its campaign. Speaking of which, the campaign is broken into numerous chapters with several separate themes. As different as the various themes and stories are, the gameplay is mostly the same: you run or boat around while often following a glowing creature from one area to the next; sometimes removing corruption from a spot with a button press and solving the occasional puzzle. Every so often, you'll get some dialogue which is voiced and is the driving force for the narrative.
While I enjoyed exploring a bit for hidden seagulls to shoo away and messages in bottles to collect, most of the actual gameplay was fairly annoying. For example, the majority of the opening area consists of watching a monster swim through the water until you feel secure that you can dive in and swim to the next spot before it catches and eats you. This happens over and over and while these moments are tense, the tension comes more from worrying about being caught than anything else. There were a few times when I had trouble figuring out where to go next and I had the occasional issue with not properly executing a jump thus merely falling into the water. Another area tasks you with carrying an object while evil creatures follow you and if they catch you, the object is carried back to where it began. Unfortunately, it's easy to get lost while running with it and one wrong turn means starting over again.
The issues with Sea of Solitude's gameplay are a shame because the narrative is quite touching overall as you witness relationship issues and the aforementioned struggles with depression and loneliness. The story also highlights just how easily a person can feel worthless or like they're the one to blame for the negative situation that they're in. These feelings are so relatable that it almost felt like Sea of Solitude was custom made for me and there were times when the narrative absolutely swept me away.
While most of Sea of Solitude struggles with blending narrative and gameplay, there were 2 magical points where they came together perfectly. One of which is a boss puzzle of sorts (there is no combat so struggles are dealt with via puzzles). The other is Kay's first insight into her brother's issues. Sunny is in school and like many of us, he's horribly bullied. This singular part of the campaign is easily one of my favorite moments in gaming and I don't doubt that it'll stay with me forever. It's tense, dark, depressing, and even uncomfortable and the gameplay matches it perfectly. I personally dropped out of high school after being bullied for years and seeing Sunny struggling with this was almost too much for me to handle but that's the best way to show just how awful bullying can be.
If the rest of Sea of Solitude was even close to as terrific as this school chapter, I would call this a game of the year contender. Sadly, the rest of the experience is marred with repetition, pacing issues, and a flawed mix of gameplay and narrative. Oddly enough, most of the best parts of the campaign happen within the first hour with there only being one other good part later in the campaign.
Looking through my review notes felt like I was reading the journal of an increasingly depressed individual. There's amazing praise at first but that quickly turns to frustration, irritation, and even anger at times. With that said, I'd recommend Sea of Solitude for the school chapter alone. The entire adventure is also only a few hours long so thankfully, it won't overstay its welcome.
- + Gameplay is sometimes tense, nerve-wracking, and stressful in the best of ways
- + Consistent rollercoaster of emotions
- + Terrific narrative with solid voice work
- - Gameplay is often repetitive and lackluster
- - Some gameplay just feels tacked on
- - Plenty of frustrating moments