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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (359)

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Sundered 3/5
Iconoclasts 3/5
Divinity: Original Sin 2 4.5/5
Heroes of the Monkey Ta... 4/5
Lands of Lore III 2.5/5
Lands of Lore II: Guard... 1/5
Lands of Lore: Throne o... 2/5
Rage 2 4/5
EnHanced 3.5/5
Blossom Tales: The Slee... 3.5/5
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 2.5/5
Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5

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Song of the Deep   PC (Steam) 

Ship Shape    4.5/5 stars

Insomniac Games began developing videogames way back in 1996, and for the better part of the company’s 20-year life, it has been known for creating mascot-driven 3D Platformers of the highest quality and acclaim, first getting their feet wet with ‘Spyro the Dragon,’ then really driving home their skill with the Pixar-movie-in-game-form ‘Ratchet & Clank’ series. Insomniac was also, effectively, a second-party to Sony, developing games exclusively for PlayStation hardware until the start of the 8th Generation.

With their newfound mastery over their own leash, Insomniac branched out and began to produce a variety of mediocrity under other publishing overlords (like “Fuse” under EA and “Sunset Overdrive” under Microsoft) as well as a few self-published efforts.

2016 was a big year for Insomniac, though, as it marked the release of a Sony-funded remaster (natch) of the original “Ratchet & Clank” that was meant to tie into a CG movie released at the same time, as well as the company’s full dive into the nascent field of VR gaming, with three such releases.

Crammed in between the big-budget Sony projects and the VR niche-seeking, Insomniac also produced another, more traditional game, with a much more Indie flare than their typical fare (after all, Insomniac has been around for a long time, and is decidedly in the “A” category of games that sits between Indies and “AAA” swill). This game, “Song of the Deep” (published by used-games retailer, GameStop, under the moniker GameTrust), took the well-established and populous/popular ‘Metroidvania’ subgenre of Action/Adventure and applied a heavy coat of the old Insomniac magic.

Presentation
“Song of the Deep” is an absolutely gorgeous game in nearly every aspect of its presentation. While almost every previous game developed by the studio used the proprietary Insomniac Engine, “Song of the Deep” does not, but instead is built on the oft-maligned Unity Engine. However, unlike most Unity games, which feature generic assets and poor animation, “Song of the Deep’s” 2.5D visuals are obviously painstakingly crafted, with plenty of hand-drawn flare and layers upon layers of detail.

If such a simple 2.5D Unity game can be a feast for the eyes, it’s not surprising that the audio is top-notch as well. The game is voiced by a female narrator with a charming Irish brogue, while the soundtrack features a number of pleasant, evocative, and atmospheric scores that perfectly complement the visuals.

The only thing keeping “Song of the Deep” from receiving a perfect Presentation score is a bit of laziness regarding the user interface. While the UI is actually quite functional and – shockingly – appealing to the eye, and the game natively supports Xinput, the Insomniac team lazied-out and somehow didn’t catch the fact that the game shows keyboard shortcuts in the UI, even when using a controller. Some shortcuts are displayed in dual format, with keys and buttons simultaneously, but others don’t show buttons at all, leaving the player to hit every button in order to figure out what corresponds to the “F” key.

Story
“Song of the Deep” is fantastical tale of a young redheaded girl named Merryn, whose father is a poor fisherman. Every evening, Merryn stands on the cliff near their home with a candle, to guide her father’s boat home… yet, one day, he fails to return.

Clever girl that she is, Merryn cobbles together a rickety submarine from scrap, and sets out into the unknown in search of her only family. In the process, she explores a vast undersea world, brought to ruin at some point in the distant past. Solving the mysteries of this unseen world is key to finding her father.

“Song of the Deep’s” basic excuse narrative reminds me quite strongly of the basic excuse narrative of the ancient ‘Blaster Master’ series, which – not coincidentally – features a youth taking a vehicle to explore an unfamiliar environment, in search of someone dear to them (only in “Blaster Master” it was a pet frog underground instead of a father underwater). Beyond the basics, though, “Song of the Deep” is just a delightful fantasy, steeped in mystery. It also does an excellent job of pushing certain pet Liberal issues – like strong females and environmental awareness – without coming across as anything near the SJW pandering-shows put on by publishers like EA.

The only real downside to “Song of the Deep’s” narrative is that the game is a bit on the short side. A first time playthrough should take a thorough explorer roughly 10-12 hours, while subsequent speedruns will be much, much shorter (thankfully, “Song of the Deep” doesn’t explicitly pander to speedrunners via achievements, but we all know they’ll try to complete the game as quickly as possible anyway, since the Metroidvania subgenre attracts them like flies on honey).

Gameplay
“Song of the Deep” is both a very pure Metroidvania-style Action/Adventure (that is, a 2D sidescroller in which the player explores a single, large, interconnected map, and must find various tools and upgrades in order to access previously out-of-reach areas), and an incredibly unique spin on the subgenre. While most Metroidvania games involve a lot of jumping and shooting, “Song of the Deep” opts to start the player with the exact opposite: There is no jumping because the entire game takes place in a zero-gravity underwater environment, and there is no shooting (initially) because the first weapon Merryn finds and bolts onto her scrapyard submarine is a grappling claw, which can make melee attacks (or, optionally, grab environmental objects and fling them at enemies).

Along with these unorthodox methods of movement and attacking comes a very well-designed and well-illustrated world map, filled with obstacles and puzzles that make use of the submarine’s unique features, as well as useful markers that show the locations of power-ups, treasure, save points, fast-travel points, un-opened paths, and the next objective. Some HARD-heads could complain that the Next Objective marker makes the game too easy, but, like the Next Objective marker in the last great Metroidvania I played, “Shadow Complex,” it’s easy to ignore, and the presence of a high-quality map will keep players from getting lost and confused, with or without a waypoint to chase.

The upgrades for Merryn’s submarine mostly take the form of elemental torpedoes. While these can be a clutch supplement to the grapple claw in combat, their use is limited by an energy meter, making them more useful for unblocking paths and solving puzzles with their unique properties. Before too long, the player will also come across an upgrade that allows Merryn to swim outside of the submarine, making the “Blaster Master” comparison even more apt (though she never enters human-only areas with wildly different gameplay). While found upgrades generally add features to the player’s repertoire of moves or increase the submarine’s health or energy meters, increasing the submarine’s attack power involves collecting treasure and buying upgrades from hermit crab merchants. Though there are a set number of large treasures in the game, the player need not find all of them to afford all of the weapon upgrades, as enemies also tend to drop treasure quite frequently, which left me with over 4000 monies at the end of the game, with nothing to spend them on.

Overall
Forget the over-hyped “Hollow Knight” and “Dead Cells”: “Song of the Deep” is the best Metroidvania-style Action/Adventure in recent memory. Between the breathtaking presentation, excellent map and puzzle layout, and the novelty of taking the subgenre into a zero-gravity underwater environment, I can’t recommend this game strongly enough.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 4.5/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5

 

 


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Comment On Review

Nelson Schneider

Nelson Schneider- wrote on 07/03/19 at 04:54 PM CT

 

The controls are solid. There's momentum, as you'd expect underwater (or in space), but it's not overdone and movement is very responsive.

I played Hollow Knight for a couple of hours, and found it to be over-hyped flavor-of-the-day bandwagon fodder, so I uninstalled it. I won't be reviewing it, but if you must know my least favorite of its many questionable mechanics and design choices, it would be the way knockback works. Instead of pushing enemies away as the hero hits them, the hero scoots backwards as he hits enemies.

And you said the secret word regarding Dead Cells, which guarantees that I will NEVER play or review it, but know it's trash already.

dbarry_22

dbarry_22- wrote on 06/19/19 at 12:02 PM CT

 

I often find myself frustrated by the controls of games that take place underwater and I've seen complaints elsewhere online saying that this game is like that. How did it play for you?

Also, I see that you said that Hollow Knight and Dead Cells are over-hyped. Have you played them? I don't see a review for either from you. I'm not sure you can compare Dead Cells to this, it's a rogue-like but I've only heard good things from Hollow Knight.

 
 
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