If Insomniac's Song of the Deep was a children's book or a graphic novel, I would have no problem singing its praises to anyone of any age. Its captivating portrayal of a young girl's undersea adventure not only looks and sounds beautiful, it also tells a story that sparkles with all the wonder, danger, and timelessness of a classic fable. But Song of the Deep is not a book. Rather, it's a relatively uninventive Metroidvania-style action-adventure title whose gameplay turns tedious and frustrating a little too often to forgive. If you're willing to weather the storm, however, Song of the Deep still delivers moments of fun and, more importantly, an entrancing, well-crafted story.
The setup is simple and sweet: when her father fails to return from his latest fishing expedition, the young, resourceful Merryn cobbles together a ramshackle submarine and goes looking for him. Beneath the waves, she finds a spellbinding world full of sunken ships, hidden treasure, hideous monsters, and mysterious cities. The colorful, imaginative backdrops play perfectly on the pirate tales we loved as kids, evoking a sense of wonder that anyone can connect with. The music too is subtle but evocative, shifting from awe and tranquility to danger and dread as the tension starts to mount.
The story itself is well-written. Like a Pixar film, it never condescends to its audience with watered-down exposition or moronic humor. Instead, it carefully and clearly builds a world, expertly introducing important elements early before bringing them back just in time to save the day later on. As you play, you'll receive little bursts of narration that feel like you flipped the page of a storybook. These moments are not only smartly paced, they also offer context and insight without simply explaining what's happening like some distant radio partner dumping exposition in your ear. Ultimately, Song of the Deep provides a rare and welcome example of exceptional interactive storytelling.
Unfortunately, the game's mechanics don't deserve quite that much praise. You'll spend most of your time exploring the 2D world in Merryn's sub with only limited direction, carefully maneuvering through treacherous areas while gradually gathering upgrades. Once bolted on, these upgrades allow her to smash different types of barriers and enter previously inaccessible areas--you know, classic Metroidvania stuff. For the most part, exploration proves enjoyable, but the puzzles you encounter along the way--especially those that reward you optional upgrades and currency--tend to sink the experience.
Most have an obvious solution but still require a great deal of patience to complete. You might need to, say, grab a sea mine with Merryn's finicky tethered claw and use it to explode a reinforced door. One glance at the scenario and you know, "Okay: mine, door--got it," but dragging the uncooperative mine to that door without bumping something and prematurely detonating the device might make you pull your hair out.
And that's just one example. Several repeated puzzle types are frustratingly time-consuming or worse, boring. You'll inevitably spend tons of time waiting: waiting for the searchlight to pass, waiting for the mine to respawn, waiting for your boost to recharge, waiting for an ocean current to stop. Later puzzles involving reflected beams of light can be even more infuriating simply because they're so damn protracted. In fairness, the puzzles do grow more inventive once you acquire later upgrades. Being able to float a bomb by blasting it with ice or flip a switch through a wall using a sonar pulse, for example, opens up some creative possibilities. I even uncovered a couple delightful "A-ha!" moments, like tricking a school of fish into eating the kelp encasing a chest.
In between puzzles, there's always a chance you'll be attacked by some especially nefarious sea life. Thankfully, Song of the Deep comes prepared with simplistic but generally enjoyable combat mechanics. Though you can defeat enemies by smashing them with Merryn's claw or shooting them with various types of missiles, the controls utilize only a single stick, meaning you must always move and aim in the same direction. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it does underscore the simplistic nature of the mechanics.
You can dodge attacks and repel enemies with your sonar once you find the requisite upgrades, and darting around blasting loads of deadly jellyfish does feel empowering. But the generous health and energy levels usually allow you to just pummel your attackers without much need for deeper strategy. Even "boss battles" mainly recycle the same basic, repetitive enemies. The only real challenge comes from eluding the invincible death squids that populate a specific part of the world. Being repeatedly one-hit killed and forced to restart from a distant spawn point is the scientific opposite of fun.
Still, Song of the Deep's mix of combat, puzzle-solving, and exploration generally lands somewhere around "fine," even if it waivers between aggravating and enjoyable in the process. And although the game tests your patience more often than your skill, its engrossing world and excellent story keep the experience afloat through it all.