An emotional journey that almost sinks due to the weight of emotion and gameplay bugs
Indie adventure games historically seem to be perfect vehicles for emotionally impactful storytelling. Case in point: Sea of Solitude, the new Quantic Dream published 3D Platformer created by Jo-Mei Games. It’s a game with sailing chops that comes close to capsizing under the weight of its own lack of subtlety.
Players are quickly introduced to Kay, a young adult in a version of Berlin taken over by the ocean. You control her adventures as she swims, jumps, and rides a motorboat to uncover her deep-seeded fears and emotional turmoil. The world is limited to a few key environments, but they are reused effectively by covering them in a desert theme, submerging them, or employing other environmental effects. Using basic 3D platforming and puzzle solving (collecting glowing orbs to progress), Kay addresses her inner anxieties and interpersonal memories.
The gameplay has light, low-stakes platforming across the submerged city, all the while avoiding the personified forms of Kay’s internal dread such as giant killer fish, devilish fiends, and trollish mollusks in giant conches. One false move and you’re eaten alive in a fearsome fashion. The story progression keeps the barriers simplistic, with orb-collecting puzzles to continue the memory narrative or dangerous heights to ascend. The environments are punctuated with a “seagull” photo mode that allows for fantastic shots from brilliant heights and angles to display the beautifully crafted take on Berlin.
The movement can feel sluggish at times with occasional clipping or glitching of textures creating impromptu barriers or puzzles that are more difficult than they initially appear. Keeping with that thought, certain story beats land with shades of darkness, which while thematic also increases traversal difficulty in a way that seems unintended by the developer. Scenes become hard to parse, making for more frustration than challenge. This also comes into play when hurt by enemies. The screen darkens as damage increases so some events feel unfair rather than difficult. Despite occasional arbitrary deaths, the story intrigues enough to push through these barriers to delve into what is a heavy-handed emotional story of acceptance over pain.
The overarching narrative follows Kay as she addresses her internal dialogue over her shortcomings within her relationships. They highlight her brother’s bullying, her parents' tumultuous near-divorce,and a problematic college boyfriend. Players experience each first hand via physical manifestation of the problem and hearing direct exchanges throughout. As you participate in the memories, you watch each play out to a satisfying conclusion.
These vignettes are serious conversations regarding suicide, depression, bullying, and toxic relationships. These are impactful conversations on how it feels to experience these situations while also struggling with your own responsibility regarding others. Kay grapples with each topic coming to an eventual endpoint, but the game itself struggles under the weight of these heavy topics. Each is worth addressing individually but to juggle that many serious topics doesn’t always give proper attention to each, and some even feel like their conclusions are brushed off for the next important emotion. It’s almost like Sea of Solitude wants so much to have something to say, but ends up feeling slightly inauthentic. It’s trying to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors such as GRIS or Celeste, but with the subtlety of a hammer.
Despite the lack of subtlety, Sea of Solitude is largely successful in bringing its positive affirmative message to a colorful world. The events that play out are often powerfully voice acted and complemented with incredible art. It wears its influences on its sleeve and is profoundly direct with its ,but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even though the gameplay is flawed with clumsy and inaccurate platforming, it’s not enough to capsize a strong overall presentation.