Lost At Sea
HIGH The visuals are arresting.
LOW The dog showing up.
WTF So many people in dire emotional distress!
Sea of Solitude is the story of Kay, a furry monster girl adrift on an ocean that’s drowning a city’s worth of structures and buildings beneath its surface.
It’s clear that the work here is personal, but there’s more to crafting an engaging, touching videogame than just sharing one’s experience. Feelings and emotion have to be communicated in a way that can connect with people who haven’t walked in the same shoes, and the act of playing has to reinforce the themes and keep interest up. Unfortunately, Sea of Solitude didn’t clear either of those bars for me.
To give credit where it’s due, the visual style crafted by Jo-Mei Games is top-notch. Kay’s sunken world is appropriately dark and gloomy when navigating troubled straits, but she’s often in spaces that are happy and bright, and these areas are magnificent. Textures are smooth, the colors are warm and inviting, the sky is a crisp blue and the water shimmers magically. It’s almost as if chunks of Cinque Terre were turned into an adventure, and it’s lovely.
The character design is appealing as well. Kay’s bestial aspect is enigmatially interesting, and despite “solitude” being in the title, she constantly meets others during her journey. Most of them come in the form of monsters that are scarier and more imposing than she is, and seeing these large beasts is enough to give one pause. Special recognition goes out to the large fishlike creature featured in trailers and promotional art. Seeing it prowling beneath the water’s surface is unsettling, and the sections when Kay needs to swim while it’s around made my stomach clench.
Unfortunately, Solitude’s strengths lie only in its visuals. Once past them, I found it to be a disappointing experience that failed to connect or leave an impression.
The pacing of the adventure is strange. In its opening areas, it seems as though it’s going to be an inner journey focused on Kay — and it is, in a general sense — but things shift and she focuses on the troubles of her little brother. So it’s about the two of them? Fine enough, but then her brother is ‘fixed’ and her parents’ marriage takes center stage, and that’s not even the end of the story. Having so many different emotional conflicts happening one after another gives Sea of Solitude a cluttered, unfocused quality, and it doesn’t manage to dig deeply into any of it. There were brief moments that were distressing and difficult, but without being more tightly honed, none of Kay’s situations build enough emotional intensity.
The voice acting was also a concern. I don’t know whether the voice actors are professionals in their own country, but it’s obvious that none of them are native English speakers. The accents, emphasis and intonations of the dialogue are an obstacle to get over for a project that aims to hit players in the heart, and at no point does Kay or anyone else sound like they’re feeling raw. If Kay and the cast aren’t feeling it, then players won’t either.
In terms of mechanics, I appreciated that Sea of Solitude’s third-person adventuring incorporates no combat and that most play is of an exploratory nature. Kay pilots her boat around or climbs exposed buildings to seek out globes of light or to purify things surrounded by negative energy, but it largely boils down to firing a “flare” which shows players which way to go, going to that point, listening to dialogue and the resolution of an emotional issue, and then repeating the process. Occasionally she’ll have to dodge enemies that give chase, but these sequences are more frustrating than anything — when they catch her, they knock her around and stall forward progress.
This content was fine enough for the first couple of hours, but even though Solitude is a short affair (I finished it in two brief sittings) it wears out its welcome by repeating the same process too many times. There weren’t any surprises or twists once its formula became clear, and the narrative hosting too many people with too many problems wasn’t poignant or robust enough to carry itself to the end.
I hate to be critical of something clearly inspired by someone’s personal journey and their hard-won life lessons, but simply sharing such things does not equate to a compelling experience. With a lack of focus, unconvincing voicework and gameplay that runs out of steam halfway through an already-brief running time, Sea of Solitude is like sitting through a few hours of a stranger’s therapy session — it certainly means a lot to someone, but I walked away unaffected.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Jo-Mei Games and published by EA. It is currently available on PS4, XBO and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Fantasy Violence and Language. The official ESRB description is as follows: This is an adventure game in which players assume the role of a woman (Kay) exploring an abandoned, submerged city. Players traverse flooded streets, rooftop environments, and building corridors to solve puzzles and avoid shadowy creatures. Failing to avoid creatures can sometimes result in the Kay’s injury or death: shadowy hands drag Kay underwater causing her to drown; shadows can attack her till she collapses; a giant fish-like creature can bite Kay before devouring her. Cries of pain are heard as characters are injured. The word “sh*t” appears in the game.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles for all dialogue, and it can be resized. There are no significant audio cues needed during gameplay, although finding some of the pickups (specifically, seagulls) is made easier by an audio cue that is not visually represented onscreen.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.