The latest indie game from the EA Originals label features some uncomfortably relatable monsters struggling with some very human problems.
EA are well aware that to many gamers they have the reputation of pantomime villain and recently complained in an interview that they, ‘struggle with the perception that we’re just a bunch of bad guys.’ Considering their attitude to things like microtransactions, and their seemingly trigger-happy willingness to shut down whole studios, they shouldn’t be surprised at how people perceive them. But at the same time, it’s important to recognise when they do good, and their support of indie developers has always been surprisingly charitable.
The only reason EA’s indie efforts aren’t more recognised is that they’ve never had a breakout hit that has earned both critical and commercial success, although co-op thriller A Way Out came close. It’s director, Josef Fares, insists that EA ‘doesn’t make a single dollar ’out of publishing the game and everything went to the developer, which is definitely not what you’d expect.
We’re not sure if the same deal is also in place for Sea Of Solitude, but it’s certainly a world away from the mass market excesses of something like FIFA or Battlefield. Instead, it’s a platform puzzler that is nominally about exploring a mysterious, submerged city and trying to discover why you’ve turned into a red-eyed monster. But really it’s about the developer exploring concerns about her own mental health after a nasty break-up.
As you might imagine, the developer herself is not mentioned in the game but her stand-in is a young woman named Kay, who is trapped in a sunken city haunted by animal-like monsters that were clearly once human. Each one of them has a different story, from a kid getting bullied at school to visual representations of Kay’s fighting parents, and they often taunt Kay about her own failures and inadequacies.
You start out on a small boat floating amidst the flooded city, but enough of it is above water that the game is able to offer up some simple platforming sections so you can explore on foot. Apart from all the monsters the game world is also cloaked in darkness, but luckily Kay has a flare that can illuminate her immediate surroundings. The game’s visual metaphors aren’t exactly subtle, but it’s easy to be drawn into the story anyway.
Removing the darkness reveals just how beautiful the game world is, with bright blue skies that suddenly transform the city into a virtual paradise. This is, of course, easier said than done, and while you can talk to many of the monsters even the seemingly passive ones will get angry and aggressive when you start trying to change things. But all you really need to do is get to the various light sources, that are trapped in a cloud of corruption, and release them.
There’s essentially no punishment for death but that almost feels like a negative given that the gameplay itself is so simplistic and unengaging. The story only lasts around four hours and yet it still manages to seem very dragged out, with some tedious stealth sections and platforming that is clearly trying to emulate the work of Team Ico but is never as interesting or imaginative.
And yet the narrative aspect of the game does work very well. As you get to know Kay you learn more about her foibles and troubled history, including her relationship with her brother and the background to her break-up. The game is perfectly happy to highlight when she’s in the wrong and the ambiguous resolution feels very honest and realistic.
The dialogue is generally very good, and feels both authentic and unpretentious, with the game being sensible enough to realise it needs to sprinkle in a few jokes to avoid accusations of navel gazing. But unfortunately the voice-acting is often poor and many of the actors aren’t up to the task before them, which means the atmosphere suffers as a result.
Video games, particularly indie titles, are becoming increasingly confident about tackling real world issues, and exploring the human condition, but combining that narrative ambition with a game that’s enjoyable to play in its own right is something few ever get right. And as such Sea Of Solitude is a thoughtful and affecting experience, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable one.
It’s also not very subtle about its exploration of loneliness and mental well-being but given how reticent society is to broach such subjects that is certainly forgivable. The game’s message is more interesting than the act of playing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth experiencing for yourself.
Sea Of Solitude
In Short: A thoughtful exploration of the monsters people can unwittingly become, although it often struggles to offer a compelling gameplay experience.
Pros: A very sympathetic protagonist whose problems and flaws feel very human. A good script with excellent visuals.
Cons: Mechanically, it’s simplistic and repetitive – even with the short running time. Weak voice-acting and some of the visual metaphors are a bit too on the nose.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: EA Originals
Release Date: 5th July 2019
Age Rating: 12
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