Video games have slowly been branching out to topics that involve more than just saving princess and killing fascists in robot suits. Mental health and personal struggles have broken into the space increasingly over the last decade thanks to bold creators and the indie game renaissance we still find ourselves in even in these post-Braid years. SEA OF SOLITUDE is one of those titles that checks both boxes, an indie game that manifests internal issues as external monsters. It’s a bold concept with thoroughly pretty visuals but it’s too often suffocated by frustrating gameplay and tacky, poorly performed dialogue.
But those problems aren’t as distracting when speaking about the game on a conceptual level. That concept centers around Kay, a normal young woman that has been perverted by her mental roadblocks and insecurities, turning her into some sort of demonic version of herself. Coated in black fur and equipped with a piercing, red-eyed stare, she has to navigate a waterlogged world filled with other sorts of inner demons turned outer demons.
Sea of Solitude is, at its core, a game about dealing with these problems in a mature way, as its preroll content warning warns you about. The story touches on a variety of topics like bullying, unhappy parents, broken relationships, and more. On the surface, tackling and actualizing these ideas through a game is a noble cause if just for sheer novelty. Not many games make bold strides to be about something so personal and Sea of Solitude, for as unsubtle as the game and marketing are, is worth commending for its ideas.
While most of the monsters have goofy proportions or faces that are just a little bit off, their gigantic stature and grim appearances make them mostly as physically foreboding as the story wants them to be. They stick out and corrupt the world and become physical obstacles to overcome. Getting chased by the underwater snake-like shark is particularly terrifying, especially as it violently rams the platform you’re standing on as the legally safe Jaws music plays.
Sea of Solitude Review | Holes in the hull
But examining these breathing metaphors past their concept stage is where the game starts to unhinge. While the shellfish version of the protagonist makes sense, some of the other metaphors aren’t as clear. Why is the brother a bird with hands and why is the father a lizard? It’s hard to say because it doesn’t give you enough substance to make confident assumptions. This game begs for some sort of Silent Hill 2-esque level of symbolism within its creature design yet it’s either too obtuse or not there at all. And for a game that wants to be all about symbols, the random beasts are a huge missed opportunity that demonstrates how much its metaphorical boat of metaphors is full of very real holes.
Kay is also good on the surface, but questionable once you dive ever so slightly into her depths. Her struggles are quite relatable as they all deal with universal pain like insecurities and family, but the game’s writing and performances — even from the opening monologue — just cannot carry the weight those heavy topics deserve and require. Embarrassing dialogue and awkward performances come together in all the wrong ways and make the game feel as though it would be more at home at a community college theater class. Stilted, amateur delivery deflates any of the impact these topics should have and instead makes them laughable like some of the best worst scenes from a David Cage game.
And when conveying these topics is the crux of the narrative, the whole thing sinks especially when the protagonist is one of the weakest links. Since Kay is the main character and her performance is incredibly stiff, it’s hard to truly invest in her journey since you’ll have to endure so many tacky lines at every step. Cringing through the dialogue diminishes the impact of each word and decent scenes, like the finale involving the wolf, show tiny glimpses of what could have been.
While the corniness ebbs and flows, it never fully dissipates, all the way up to the obtuse ending. It’s bizarrely similar to Celeste in some ways but that hard platformer pulls off literally every overlapping aspect with significantly more grace and nuance. Games with comparable subject matter don’t always have to directly compete but, in this case, the similarities point out how much Sea of Solitude stumbled over its finale.
Sea of Solitude Review | Mechanical shortcomings
Celeste was also a complete blast to play in a way that bonded the narrative and mechanics whereas Sea of Solitude is either usually functional or a complete drag. It’s not quite a platformer, but much of the game requires you to move from platform to platform, timing your jumps so you don’t end up as fish food. When it’s just simply evading a nasty fish, it’s quite simple and can be momentarily thrilling because of the aforementioned musical cues and close shaves.
Sea of Solitude begins to flounder the more it moves away from that simple premise. Traditional platforming is quite stiff and shallow and even though the game doesn’t usually demand much precision, its basic controls make these sections rather unexciting. Puzzle-like “combat” scenarios are infinitely more frustrating because they push these sluggish controls into spaces they’re not made for. This is sometimes literal since it’s too easy to get stuck on enemies and die.
There’s just not much mechanical meat to Sea of Solitude and not every game has to be Doom, but it tries to explore territory it isn’t suited for and ends up stretching its simplistic mechanics far past their breaking point. It doesn’t want to quite be a passive experience nor does it want to be a traditional platformer. But its shortcomings on both sides means that it occupies the uninteresting middle; not satisfying enough to be a platformer and not narratively compelling enough to be a completely laid-back, story-heavy adventure.
Sea of Solitude Review | The beauty of nature
The vibrant visuals don’t occupy any sort of middle ground as they are undeniably and consistently beautiful (aside from some of the wonky monster faces). At the “happy” points in the story, Sea of Solitude’s Venetian-esque city is draped in saturated hues that coat the world in a serene beauty that’s soothing to sail through. There are vague hints of Journey here as its canals of lovely, lush water seem endless and a place that could be calmly explored at a leisurely pace, if only for a moment since there isn’t much to actually do or find.
During its somber moments, darker tones flood the flooded city and even though they understandably aren’t as lively, they still benefit from the game’s simplistic, stylized art direction. Flipping between these polarized tones to match the story is not only a cool narrative trick, but it also makes it easier to better appreciate the brighter colors, given how they can be ripped away in an instant. The first two acts may visually outshine the final third, but its art style and accompanying smooth soundtrack weave together and result in a title that is aesthetically pleasing.
But those aesthetic strengths don’t completely overwrite Sea of Solitude’s numerous other deficiencies. Addressing more personal mental issues is novel in gaming and that much is admirable but trying isn’t always enough. Storytelling matters as much as — if not more than — the story you’re trying to tell and the game’s clumsy script and amateurish performances demonstrate how one side can spoil the other. In essence, it’s a boat that looks nice from the outside until you jump inside and notice all the holes actively trying to sink the whole thing.
GameRevolution reviewed Sea of Solitude on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.