Hands-on with Insomniac's crack at metroidvania, Song of the Deep


Preview of the next game from the Ratchet & Clank studio

If you're going to make a metroidvania, getting your acronym (SotD) as close to the gold standard (SotN) is a good a start as any, I suppose. Song of the Deep is the surprise, GameStop-published (the store and Game Informer magazine owner, yes) new game (PC, Xbox One, PS4) from Ratchet & Clank developer Insomniac Games.

The studio is still working on its PS4-exclusive Ratchet & Clank game to tie into the upcoming animated film (Sly Stallone is in it! And typical series humor, like the rude "kick some asteroid" tagline) as well as a VR project, Edge of Nowhere. Still, the studio that pumped out PlayStation-defining series (Spyro, Ratchet, Resistance) is in a weird spot -- it only pumped out mobile games last year, for example, following up the Xbox One-exclusive Sunset Overdrive with phone games.

So maybe it makes sense that Insomniac's pitching it on the basis on familiarity, "what would happen if Journey and Ori and the Blind Forest had a baby underwater." Bold gambit.

Song of the Deep is a lowkey Johnny-come-lately in the partially coagulated genre of "dad games," the Children of Men-inspired fatherhood surrogate tales of The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite, and The Walking Dead. But unlike the latter, you're not waiting for season two to play as the little girl. No, this is pulling from the Studio Ghibli canon of empowerment (Spirited Away or Nausica). Merryn's father goes missing and so she builds herself a makeshift submarine to go find him.

Because the game takes place in the briny deep, it's more akin to an Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet or the recent Galak-Z than platforming-heavy metroidvanias. You're either in the sub or swimming around, even more vulnerable to all kinds of sea nasties as Insomniac wants to, "play up that sense of vulnerability and loneliness."

There are puzzles and tight squeezes that require Merryn to exit the ship. Speaking to the former, I mainly ran into light beam puzzles that require you to move mirrors to aim the light at certain spots, or sometimes combine strands to form different colors. Hopefully you remember your elementary school color combinations. Red and blue make purple, blue and yellow make green, clapping chalkboard erasers in classmates' faces make for detention, etc.

One thing that kind of bummed me out early on was the general look of the game, which was giving me some DuckTales Remastered kind of disconnect between flashes of great 2D art and then less beautiful 3D art in the 2D plane. Basically floating around in these deeps I felt like Rayman Legends had already done this better, including making it feel a bit more like underwater than free-floating (though the latter might've benefited from contrast between land lubber segments). That faded a bit the more I started to play, though, and there are highlights, like the wild enemy design.

There are doubloons and other precious pieces of treasure to collect and quite a bit of sub upgrades to buy from the Hermit Crab vendor. The demo build came equipped with a pair of headlights on the sub (stock, I'm assuming), a short-range claw reminiscent of Link's hook shot (used for puzzles and combat) and an array of torpedoes. There are ways to combine these tools, too, for "surprise and delight" moments you'd expect from an arsenal-heavy developer like Insomniac. For example, you can shoot a torpedo and quickly grab it with the claw so it spins around your sub like a protective Mario Kart trio of shells. 

Song of the Deep is something of a smaller, personal title for the bombastic, long-independent developer. I'm told Insomniac CCO (and lead writer) Brian Hastings wants, "to make sure I'm teaching something [positive] to children through this medium," and it's not surprising this Ireland-stationed nautical adventure is helmed by someone who visited the country with his young daughter on vacation years ago. Between the atypical retail-store-as-publisher model and the parenthood inspiration, Song of the Deep is a small marker of two disparate ways in which games are changing. 

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Steven Hansen
Steven HansenContributor   gamer profile

Steven watches anime & sports, buys meat out of trucks, dates a Muppet, and is only good at cooking. He stands before you bereft of solace and well on the road to perdition. ('^ω^) more + disclosures



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