[This review was originally published in 2019. Shinsekai is out on Switch today, and it’s worth revisiting.]
When Apple Arcade was first announced, I never expected to one day use the subscription service to play a deep-sea metroidvania game from Capcom. What a wild thought. Even now, it feels like a dream.
Looking through the launch lineup, Apple Arcade users already have countless games to pick and choose from – many of which are absolutely worth checking out – and I hope this doesn’t get droned out. Shinsekai: Into the Depths isn’t the flashiest game on the block, but it’s by no means a novelty. It feels akin to a lost digital-only Xbox 360 or PS3 game that has miraculously resurfaced in 2019.
I mean that in the best possible way.
Shinsekai: Into the Depths (iOS [reviewed], Nintendo Switch)
Released: September 19, 2019 (iOS), March 26, 2020 (Nintendo Switch)
MSRP: Part of Apple Arcade ($4.99 a month), $19.99 (Nintendo Switch)
In a way, it almost feels weird to call Shinsekai: Into the Depths a metroidvania.
The genre staples are all present, don’t get me wrong. As the sole surviving human forced underwater by a cataclysmic frost, you’ll traverse a sprawling world map, scrounge for items and gear to open up new avenues of exploration, and even take down some spine-tingling sea creatures. But action, in the kill-all-the-things sense of the word, doesn’t define this experience. Shinsekai is a game of survival.
That’s true early on, when your diving-suit adventurer can barely seem to get anywhere without running anxiously low on oxygen, and it’s still true seven hours later, when you’re nearing the conclusion. While you will expand your arsenal with an array of harpoon guns and eventually have a submersible vehicle to rely on, the core of this game is all about movement. It pays to be cautious.
Much of Shinsekai is spent boosting through the water while taking care to avoid: 1) being eaten by sharks, or other, more synthetic threats, 2) running out of oxygen, and 3) hitting solid surfaces too hard. Boosting burns through your air supply, and smashing into the ground with too much momentum can crack or even outright break your oxygen tanks. Once they’re gone, they’re gone – until you find more tanks, which could be tucked inside a nearby tunnel, or possibly far away, guarded by tricky obstacles.
Those mechanics might sound troublesome – and in some cases, mostly with tanks cracking too easily and the touch-screen aiming controls being a tad finicky – they sure can be. But Shinsekai‘s intriguing underwater cave systems and unwavering sense of atmosphere are its strong suit. Choosing to make exploration always feel dangerous and exciting fits that theme. You’re the only one of your kind left, so diving deeper and deeper into uncharted (or otherwise long-abandoned) territory should feel perilous.
With so many metroidvania games to play these past few years, I’ve gotten let-me-consult-the-internet lost on more than a few occasions. I came close with Shinsekai: Into the Depths, but it didn’t quite reach that point. Your ultimate goal is to descend, and throughout the game, you’ll shore up your suit with specialized ore. A large part of Shinsekai revolves around checking suspicious nooks and crannies for dig spots, and that’s especially true if you feel the completionist urge to seek out optional resources that can, say, provide extra inventory space or make your thrusters run more efficiently.
The map does a mostly excellent job of nudging you along the critical path while also hinting at areas that could be worth investigating if you’re low on limited-use items. I also adore the way depth plays an active role. Pressure can be fatal, and in Shinsekai, it’s represented by a red line – like, the water is literally crimson colored. It’s such a cool effect. Every diving suit upgrade will push that line down, and there are several moments when you’ll need to think outside the box. To find the way forward, you may have to use your submarine or a certain item to temporarily go deeper than your suit can handle.
Shinsekai is riveting, particularly in the opening hours while you’re still getting a feel for when and where to take risks. About midway through the story, you’ll have pieced the foundation together, but you won’t have satisfying answers yet. There’s this constant feeling that they’re lurking just around the corner.
Then the game keeps going – and going. As much as I’m into Shinsekai‘s whole vibe, I don’t think it needed to be quite as long as it is. Mechanically speaking, the last couple of zones leading up to the final eye-catching area blurred together for me. I felt like I was repeating the same actions. Part of that can be attributed to the combat – it’s definitely the weakest element overall, although playing with a gamepad does help – and part of that stems from the design, which takes a less-is-more approach.
In other words, Shinsekai: Into the Depths falters from time to time, but it more than makes up for its shortcomings with an original premise, immersive sound design, and expert worldbuilding. If you end up playing this game – and I strongly recommend that you do – just make sure to wear headphones.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game through an Apple Arcade subscription purchased by the reviewer.]