Sea of Solitude Review — Into the Belly of the Beast
Sea of Solitude manages to strike a chord with its relatable themes despite a rough start.
We have seen an increase in titles addressing mental health recently, which is something I very much welcome. Celeste was one of my favorite games of 2018 because of its story about anxiety, and Jo Mei Games’ Sea of Solitude seemed like the next game that would capture me with its message. With the backing of EA thanks to the EA Originals program, I was ready to experience the touching story the passionate Cornelia Guppert and co. were ready to tell.
For the most part, Sea of Solitude delivered on that promise, creating a story that felt personal and realistic despite the game’s fantastical nature. That being said, there were some elements of the writing and voice acting that did ultimately prevent the game from clicking with me in the way something like Celeste did. Still, Sea of Solitude definitely has the potential to be that game for someone else.
Sea of Solitude tells a story not only about how depression, anxiety, loneliness can impact a person, but how it can also impact or be influenced by those around them as well. The game starts with the game’s protagonist Kay waking up in a boat in a monstrous form. After following a lone light that guides her, she comes across a bubbly girl who is eventually taken over by the corruption that surrounds Kay and dominates this mysterious world. Everyone Kay encounters in the game is technically dealing with different problems, but they all respond to her help and are affected by it differently. While Sea of Solitude is obviously fantastical in many elements, many aspects of the story still ring true in a more realistic context and highlight the passionate and respectful environment that the game was crafted in.
While I laud the message Sea of Solitude is pushing, the delivery was not always on par with the passion on display. Whenever dialogue between characters was in play, whether it be through a conversation Kay is having, other characters arguing, or in a flashback, the writing was realistic and repeatable. Unfortunately, for a decent chunk of the game, especially early on, Sea of Solitude heavily relies on Kay’s internal monologues on her actions. Even though I understood the point of these sections, a lot of the dialogue was too simply written or on the nose to the point where I wished Sea of Solitude kept some things subtly unsaid.
I was never able to completely get on board with Kay’s voice either, as her inflections sometimes felt wrong for the emotions she was feeling. Because of those things, it took me a while to get into the game’s story despite how personal and relatable it was for me. Still, it’s worth noting that when the dialogue shows the impact of Kay’s attitude or actions, the writing can be masterful. Things get better as the game progresses and by the end of Kay’s journey, I was emotionally gripped. Sea of Solitude is a relatively short game too, so my time in those less engrossing sections was not lengthy.
From a gameplay standpoint, Sea of Solitude is a fairly straightforward affair. The controls for walking, platforming, and steering are simple. Most objectives fall under guiding Kay as she makes her way towards “Glowy”, the remnant of the Girl she meets and follows early on in the game, and clears the corruption that overtakes her while avoiding the occasional enemy, whether it be a corrupted child or the massive whale that consistently stalks Kay. Sea of Solitude’s focus is always on the story it is trying to tell so nothing about the gameplay is that groundbreaking; that being said, gameplay or cryptic objectives never got in the way of the story, which can be a major problem for similar games.
Just as things could be getting stale, the gameplay becomes even better as the story is wrapping up. Barriers that have to be melting occasionally block the player’s way, and the flair players have is used in tandem with platforming interestingly. While the flare will always guide you to the next objective as well, the level design was always strong enough where it was not a necessity to progress. This is, in part, thanks to the game’s striking visuals.
Sea of Solitude is technically low-poly in its textures, but the game is so vibrant and the environments are detailed enough to where the world feels real. Depending on Kay’s mood or the objective at hand, the world’s color palette will change from vibrant blues, greens, or oranges to more macabre grays and blacks. Even when the story would occasionally falter in the game’s relatively short run time, the world was always interesting to look at as it depicts what it can feel like to have anxiety, depression, or feelings of loneliness from a visual standpoint.
Throughout the environment, players can find the seagulls and bottled messages that serve as Sea of Solitude’s collectibles. While the seagulls worked well as a collectible as they blended into the environment, the bottles did not fair as well. They felt more unnaturally placed, and their observations tended to be short or surface level enough where it never felt like they added much. Sea of Solitude’s soundtrack was also fairly forgettable, though it swells and engrosses you when needed in the story.
After you get past the occasional shortcomings of the game’s story, Sea of Solitude is a fun puzzle platformer with a passionate plot. If a game like Celeste or Sea of Solitude can make people feel less lonely while allowing their developers to express themselves at the same time, I’m all for it. Even though it’s not without its faults when it comes to some of writing and voice acting, Sea of Solitude has the heart to pull through and guide players to the end, where its messages really start taking shape. And as this game ultimately shows, opening yourself up and listening is the first step of many to be, or help someone else be, less lonely.