Shinsekai Into the Depths really caught my attention when it was shown off during the most recent Nintendo Indie World presentation, not only for its unique premise but also its surprising origins. Shinsekai is a new title that fits the side-scrolling “Metroidvania” moniker, developed by Capcom and initially released on the Apple Arcade before later being ported to the Nintendo Switch. The title has a unique underwater theme, taking place in a world where the surface of the Earth has been covered in ice and humans have been forced to live in the ocean. You play as a lone diver who abandons his home due to the advancing ice and retreats deeper into the ocean, before finding evidence of civilization and mysterious signals that beckon them to journey deeper. Shinsekai Into the Depths is a game all about exploration and adapting to its hostile aquatic world by gathering resources and items. This game has a lot to offer players who enjoy collecting things and the feeling of constant character progression through upgrades but has some rough elements that can get in the way of your enjoyment.
Shinsekai begins with a very brief introductory cutscene that establishes the diver you play as and the threat of the advancing ice before putting you in control. This first area where you flee from the ice introduces all the game’s basic concepts through text popups, and presents challenges meant to help you get the hang of character movement. The game’s controls are easy to understand, but the underwater setting is used for some unique character movement mechanics. By default, you move very slowly and although you can climb any surface this drains a stamina meter. Moving more quickly requires you to drain your air supply to propel yourself through the water in any direction along the game’s 2D plane.
The air this move uses up is tied to the game’s unique health system. Instead of a health bar, you have an air tank that slowly drains over time. Extra tanks can be found scattered around the environment but taking damage through environmental hazards or enemies can cause these tanks to permanently break. Air for the tanks is refilled at save points and air pockets, but a broken tank can only be replaced by finding another one. Running out of air or breaking your suit’s built-in tank leads to a game over. I like the concept of these movement and health systems, as there are a lot of different factors you need to consider as you move through the game’s world.
The other basic concept this portion of the game teaches the player is resource gathering and character upgrades. Resources like plants are collected by simply walking into them, while others are dropped by defeated enemies. Most of these resources are obtained at mining spots. Mining spots can be located by turning on your suit’s light with ZL, or by pressing down on the control stick and Y to use a sonar move that highlights anything nearby on your map. Most resources you’ll find are used to craft consumable items like air refills and air tank repair tools through the game’s crafting interface. Rarer and harder to reach resources are used for permanent upgrades like increased weapon damage, the ability to carry more air tanks, and resistance to ice.
The most important resource you’ll be collecting is special ore used to increase your resistance to water pressure. High pressure water that damages your suit is indicated in red both in game and on your map, and this water pressure serves as your primary obstacle to advancing through the game. If you mainly stick to the critical path, you’ll spend most of your time hunting for this ore. It is clearly indicated on your map when you find a mining node containing this ore so it’s unlikely you’ll miss any.
Finding materials used for permanent upgrades doesn’t reward you with an upgrade right away, you’ll need to amass enough of these resources to unlock one. Think of these special materials like pieces of heart in Zelda, items that contribute over time to an increase in your character’s abilities. This game’s map is fairly huge, so this piecemeal approach to amassing upgrades works in its favour. You’ll be incentivised to comb over every area you explore, and exploration is almost always rewarded with something. This constant delivery of little character upgrades lends the game’s exploration an addictive quality, I’d say its one of its greatest strengths. Further adding to this are new crafting recipes and weapon types that the game delivers at a very consistent pace.
Unfortunately, the resource gathering in this game also highlights one of its greatest weaknesses early on: its lack of clarity. The different resources you collect are presented to you as nameless symbols when you collect them. Resources of similar color and shape are easy to mix up without a name to assign to them. Much of my resource gathering early on was rewarded with the sensation of “oh, I got… something?” I had to check the game’s crafting interface to see what the item I collected even did. This takes some of the enjoyment out of gathering resources, although the important ore used to dive deeper is clearly indicated as such. The item and crafting interface overall feels very unclear at first due to its near complete lack of text, although I was able get used to it over time.
One thing I never quite got used to over the course of my playthrough was the character’s movement physics. I wouldn’t describe the way you control as broken, but the main character never seemed to control exactly how I expected him to. Reversing any of your momentum can be difficult, and the way you interact with climbable surfaces can feel clunky. One thing that does feel broken is the way you interact with the surface of water in air pockets. Touching the bottom of the water’s surface can send you plummeting downward with surprising speed, often enough to cause you to take damage.
Another aspect of the game that undermines its movement system is an overabundance of some resources. It wasn’t long before I maxed out my carrying capacity of resources meant for crafting some of the consumables, particularly the air refill and repair items. These healing items are so common that it undermines the tension and caution the game’s health and movement systems should inspire in players. Sometimes I would be inundated with so many of these resources from enemies or mining they would pile up in the environment and obstruct my movement. Further reducing this tension is the quantity of save points. They seem to be placed a bit haphazardly, in some cases I would find another save point less than a minute away from the one I just used. These save points double as stations to refill your air supply, so running out of air was rarely a concern for me. Resources used to craft ammo for your weapons are much less abundant however, and I found myself having to use my weapons carefully.
The first section of the game didn’t leave a good impression due to these issues and others I’ll discuss soon, but the game improves significantly after you complete the first area and acquire a submarine. This invincible vehicle can move quickly through open environments and drill through ice to access new areas. Leaving the submarine causes a tether to attach to your suit, giving you infinite air over a limited range. You can detach from this tether to explore further from your vehicle, although as I mentioned earlier running out of air isn’t much of a concern even in this state.
The reason the game improves at this point is because of its structure. Areas become more open to accommodate the vehicle, and fill with small caverns and crevasses that need to be explored by leaving it. Driving to unexplored areas in your submarine and getting out to pick up any goodies, then using a quick-return feature when tethered to have your submarine drag you back when your done enhances the games addictive resource gathering. The game adopts a Metroid 2-like structure here, with a vertically orientated central area that leads to side areas filled with resources and items that will let you explore deeper. It’s made clear at this point your goal is to reach the bottom, and I found the mystery of what might be down there compelling enough to drive all my exploration going forward for the game’s duration. Exploration isn’t entirely player-driven, as signals take the form of map markers leading you to your next objective. Considering the size of the game’s environments it would be easy to get lost without these, so I welcome their addition.
In traditional Metroidvania fashion, each area is usually capped off with a boss fight. In Shinsekai these range from acceptable to awful due to the game’s combat. Your offensive options include a basic melee attack that does little damage and several ranged weapons with limited ammunition. Aiming and firing these weapons works well, but your attacks lack impact and the combat doesn’t feel particularly satisfying. Avoiding attacks can be clunky due to the games occasional control problems. The game’s areas are only lightly populated with enemies, so its clear combat isn’t the game’s main focus. Boss fights often take place in cramped areas, and in my experience devolved into slugfests where I fired everything I had at them and shrugged off their attacks with my repair items. I was even able to brute force the final boss in this fashion. At one point one of the bosses bugged out a bit, and I briefly got stuck inside them. Fortunately, there are only a handful of these encounters.
Visually, the game is also a mixed bag. The game’s environments make great use of lighting and particle effects to really sell the feeling of being underwater in a lot of cases. There are also many subtle visual details you might notice as you play, including the silhouettes of massive fish in the background or modern infrastructure like roads and buildings that have been claimed by the ocean. There are areas with advanced underwater technology to find as you play, and the design of this technology was extremely unique and really left and impression on me. I found the game’s early areas used too much bloom lighting, and some of the details in these brighter or more colorful areas could blend together in places. The environments can look a little low-res as well, which compounds the issue. Areas outside your character’s field of vision are obscured by a black pixilated effect that looks ugly. I found the environments became much easier on the eyes once I started to go deeper though.
The game’s most serious technical problem is the framerate. The game runs at 60fps but only rarely manages to meet that number, usually in cutscenes where the camera is zoomed in or emptier areas. Most of the time the framerate feels like it hovers around 30fps. This is a perfectly acceptable framerate for a game of this type, but it can go below this in more intense combat encounters. Players who are sensitive to inconsistent frame pacing will likely notice it even while simply exploring. Capping the framerate at 30fps would have likely led to a better experience.
The game’s audio is much more impressive. The sounds in this game are deliberately designed to enhance the underwater feel the game is going for, and the developers even recommend playing with headphones to get the best experience. The music is extremely unique and has a calming yet eerie feel to it that suits the game perfectly. Some music tracks feature some beautiful vocalizations that remind me of Monster Hunter Tri, and some boss tracks use guitars in a really creative fashion.
It took me about 7 hours to finish this game while mainly focussing on the critical path, if you want to extend that playtime there is more to do. Shinsekai has in-game achievements, many of which are tied to some of the game’s hidden collectibles (usually cute statues). There is an encyclopedia to fill out by encountering all the underwater life in this game, some of which is hidden in out of the way areas. Completing the game unlocks an alternate mode called Another Dive. This is a time attack mode that challenges you to reach the bottom of a new map with very limited resources and tough challenges in your way. Although a neat idea, I found the game’s imprecise character movement wasn’t really suited to a mode like this.
Overall, I would recommend this game to players who enjoy Metroidvanias for their exploration and character growth elements instead of action. Players who enjoy obsessively tracking down every collectible on the map will probably feel right at home with Shinsekai. Players who need their exploration mixed in with rock-solid action should probably look elsewhere. Because of the game’s problems, I would recommend either waiting for a patch or a sale though. Ironing out the framerate problems could go a long way to improving this experience. It’s no hidden gem, but despite my gripes my experience with Shinsekai was a positive one overall, one worth playing for its unique setting and mechanics if they appeal to you.