Note: As much as I tried to avoid divulging too much, this review may contain some early story spoilers
Few things get me as excited about the current state of the indie video game market than the rise of games that tackle human issues that aren’t talked about nearly enough. Celeste and Night in the Woods found ways to talk about anxiety and depression through their respective styles of gameplay and Gris’ story is told through recognisable metaphors for the stages of grief, to name recent examples. So when CEO of Jo-Mei Games Cornelia Geppert took to the stage during EA’s 2018 E3 press conference to give an impassioned and heartfelt introduction to a game about her own battles with loneliness, you can bet I was on board. Sea of Solitude is the latest indie joint to be given a boost by the EA Originals program, and though it’s not the strongest of the bunch it’s the kind of creative and genuine experience that a corporation like EA should be proud to have backed.
Sea of Solitude tells the story of Kay, a woman who awakes completely alone on a small boat in a city that’s almost completely underwater. Resembling something other than her usual, human self and with fuzzy memory, Kay decides to sail onward and figure out what’s going on. Before long, she’s met by a couple of huge monsters that threaten to halt her progress, but as she explores and starts to piece together memories of her past she learns that these monsters are more familiar than is first apparent. As the game continues and Kay starts to understand her situation the world around her shifts and changes to reflect her mental state; tides rising and lowering, huge towers blowing angry smoke from their vents as she attempts to climb them and the entire place being engulfed by ice. Everything Kay faces speaks to her past with her family and her feelings of intense loneliness, as she learns how the two are interconnected. There are a lot of great messages to be found about how the most loved and secure people can still experience feeling lonely, even when surrounded by friends or family, and sometimes because of it. It’s easy to see that Cornelia is telling a very personal story with SoS and that’s something I always love to see in gaming.
As great as the themes that Sea of Solitude tackles are, and as much as I appreciate how raw and unapologetically it portrays them, the game kind of fumbles the delivery. Straight off the bat there is just too much unnecessary dialogue from the characters explaining what’s going on, including spelling out nearly all of its imagery and double meanings. I’m all for an indie game with a simple message free of the intentionally obfuscated wank that we sometimes see, but SoS wouldn’t have that problem even if it had half its dialogue stripped. The end result is it feels like Jo-Mei were either unsure of the effectiveness of their storytelling or just didn’t trust players to get the message, and both notions are incorrect. Adding to that are voiceover performances that, while admirable given they were performed mostly by the developers themselves, come off as really awkward. Kay’s voice doesn’t fit her all that well, and the broken English throughout makes me think it might even have been more effective in the team’s native German. Worlds like this work best when the player is given time to breathe and explore and figure things out at their own pace, and this game would’ve benefited greatly from keeping that in mind.
Throughout its four-ish hour runtime, Sea of Solitude mostly sees Kay running (or sailing) around the remnants of the sunken city while she pieces together her story. While there is the odd encounter with a monster that requires a bit of platforming and some very light puzzle elements later in the game, this is a mostly gentle, exploratory experience. There are fail states, mostly relating to negative elements in Kay’s story, but the game strays away from posing too much of a challenge to the player. That’s not a bad thing at all, and like all great indie games those elements play a big part in invoking the themes that make up the narrative. The early game can feel a little plodding though, with Kay meandering about the same areas multiple times and not really achieving much. That’s not to say nothing happens, there are story elements being revealed the whole time, but I can definitely say that I wasn’t truly engrossed in the immediate gameplay until about halfway in.
Ah, I see you’ve applied the ‘next gen’ filter. Do people still use that joke? Whatever, I’m doing it
Visually, Sea of Solitude is a feast for the eyes, with environments that are simultaneously abstract and very real. Coupled with Kay’s design, her movements, and those of the characters she encounters it further drives home the fact that the narrative stands on its own far better than it lets on. There’s also a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack that the game makes sparing use of, punctuating emotionally critical scenes with a natural ease. Even if SoS’ story had missed the mark entirely I’d still really enjoy taking in its world, spamming the screenshot button to build up a library of fantastic wallpapers and chilling out to its gorgeous tunes.
Sea of Solitude is a commendable effort and a heartfelt and personal story told in a medium that needs more of those. It’s succinct, raw, emotional and overall enjoyable despite the script almost being its own undoing. If you’ve ever felt deeply lonely this game will resonate with you, and if not you stand to gain an impressively effective understanding of it in a way that other forms of media can’t offer. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn special.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher