Loneliness. An amorphous sensation that seems to defy the simple state of being alone, at times even somehow magnified by those that surround us. Its a feeling we have likely all experienced, whether in fleeting bouts or seemingly endless stretches of time. Sea of Solitude tactfully explores loneliness, among the myriad other hardships that existence brings, and in doing so delivers a beautiful, touching experience, albeit one hindered by often clumsy storytelling and dull gameplay.
You play as Kay, a young girl consumed by loneliness. In despair of her predicament, she calls out for change. Awaking on a boat, adrift in a vast grey expanse, her call is answered as she finds herself metamorphosed into a monster; eyes red, body bristling with black feathers. A mysterious girl, clad in a yellow raincoat, greets you and beckons you forth as she illuminates the dream-like world around you in the soft glow of sun. As the water level lowers, the sunken city below unveils itself, and, equipped with a flare to guide you, you set sail down flooded streets in pursuit of a cure for your circumstance.
Darkness soon descends once more as you encounter a towering shadow of yourself, concealed within a great spiked shell. This creature – the manifestation of your self-doubt – taunts you, spewing venomous words as she obstructs your path forward. To dispel this beast, you must find and clear black tendrils of corruption which dance around and encase a likeness of yourself that is rendered in pure light.
In reconnecting with yourself, the monsters, and the darkness they bring, are pushed back. But while clearing corruption opens up the way ahead, it burdens your backpack with a literal emotional baggage, a mechanic which is implemented inventively in the game’s conclusion. However, while the game finds creative ways to translate narrative meaning into physical actions, in practice its simple puzzle mechanics fail to provide compelling gameplay, and despite efforts to iterate, its rudimentary design can become tedious.
The symbolism of these mechanics is familiar, and overt in its meaning, steeped in the well-worn metaphors and visual language of the “light vs dark” trope. The creatures our conditions transform us into become manifest in this drowned world; each individual you meet altered into a beastly shadow of themselves, desperately seeking salvation. Themes of betterment, redemption and purification permeate both the game’s narrative and gameplay, and Sea of Solitude’s stunning art design, atmosphere and creative use of imagery does a fantastic job of conveying the tension of this ongoing plight. However, the game’s heavy-handed writing and inconsistent, often unnecessary voice acting dilute the potency and diminish the subtlety of this imagery, lessening the impact of its otherwise troubling and touching exploration of mental health.
It is clear that Sea of Solitude is a deeply personal project for writer and creative director Cornelia Geppert, whom based it upon her own struggles with mental health as well as the privations of her family and peers. Perhaps in keeping with Geppert’s vision, the game’s Lead Animator, Miriam Jud, voices Kay. Unfortunately, Jud’s inexperience as a voice actor shows through stilted delivery and awkward intonation that makes each line feel as if spoken directly from a script. The supporting cast do deliver stellar some performances for the most part, lending some authenticity to the inconsistent writing.
In giving Kay a voice, the player’s connection to the game’s storytelling feels distanced, making it more an observed account than a personal experience. While I found the game’s portrayals of loneliness, depression, suicidal ideation, and a marriage in schism nuanced and affecting, the lack of ambiguity in the game’s storytelling, which overly relies on dialogue to provide near constant clarification of each scene’s meaning, lessened the story’s relatability, and thus the catharsis I derived from the experience. Games like Journey and INSIDE epitomize the effectiveness of minimalism and visual storytelling, yet despite art direction and subject matter to rival those titles, Sea of Solitude seems intent on leaving little open to interpretation.
Despite these issues that prevent Sea of Solitude from reaching the heights I had hoped it would, the game still delivers its promise of a unique and moving adventure through a troubled mind. Ingenious level design repurposes the same section of this intricate, vertically designed city throughout the game’s 4-5 hour duration, cultivating a sense of familiarity whilst necessitating a fresh approach to your surroundings. Whether by raising the water level, parting the sea to allow you to explore its sandy bed, or freezing the whole place over, each level presents your environment in a whole new way.
This same strong level design brings tension to the game’s qausi-stealth sections, and more broadly makes exploring the city’s many nooks and crannies a joy. With a great black shape stalking the waters, flailing to reach points of safety while the beast closes in, almost grasping you in its maw, is exhilarating. While simple, and at times frustrating, the sensation of being constantly followed is genuinely unsettling, and these games of cat and mouse provide some of the game’s most thrilling sections. Equally, many of my fondest moments came from hunting the game’s collectibles; sea gulls to shoo and bottled messages to retrieve. In doing so, I thoroughly explored this world, appreciating the melancholic serenity of the place while I bobbed around in my boat, the game’s gentle piano score dancing around me.
Sea of Solitude is a dark, brave and beautiful game. It explores challenging themes in deft and deeply creative ways, helped immensely by its outstanding art design. While clumsy writing, poor voice acting and unsubtle storytelling diminish the impact of its subject matter and its gameplay struggles to remain engaging, Sea of Solitude is a unique, affecting and meaningful experience that will undoubtedly stay with me.
Sea of Solitude PS4 Review
Overall - Very Good - 7.8/10
Sea of Solitude feels like a flawed masterpiece. Its gorgeous art style, strong level design and brave explorations of mental health are tempered by lacklustre storytelling and dull gameplay, making for a unique, affecting, but ultimately inconsistent experience that fails to fulfill its potential.
- Stunning art design that creatively reflects the game’s themes.
- Excellent level design.
- Offers a brave exploration of mental health.
- Heavy handed storytelling and poor voice acting.
- Rudimentary gameplay fails to remain engaging or innovate.
Reviewed using PS4 Pro.
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