|Platforms||Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC|
|Release Date||July 4, 2019|
German game studio Jo-Mei Games has been around for over a decade now, but I won’t blame you if you haven’t heard of them before, as I hadn’t until recently, either. For most of their existence, they’ve been working on small browser-based games that never gained any major following, especially outside of Germany. But their first console game, Sea of Solitude, attracted the attention of EA and became part of the EA Originals program. Its striking visual presentation, replete with bold colors, fantastical environments, and bizarre monsters, leaves an impression from the moment you lay eyes on it, and I couldn’t help but be curious to try the game out for myself.
Sea of Solitude may be bright and colorful, but it’s not quite kid-friendly. Most of the dialogue is clean, but some very occasional strong language, such as s**t, makes its way in from time to time. The game also deals with heavy topics, such as loneliness, bullying, suicide, and divorce. Small children could be scared by some of the imagery in the game’s darker moments, too. There’s no blood or gore, but Kay can be killed—by being devoured by a monster or dragged underwater to her demise, to give a couple of examples—and will sometimes scream in agony.
Sea of Solitude builds off an intriguing premise, that loneliness turns you into a monster. The game’s protagonist and player character, a young woman named Kay, has transformed into a monster because of this loneliness and now traverses in a motorboat through a surreal sunken city, encountering her similarly monsterified family and friends. Along the way, Kay confronts the demons facing her loved ones and herself as she strives to return to normal.
While this setup is promising, the execution is a mixed bag. The voice acting wavers between good and mediocre, though I applaud the actors on their effort; for some of them, English is clearly not their first language, yet they all still deliver acceptable performances and worked hard to hit proper inflections. More importantly, though, I found myself, as a Christian, put off by some of its secular moral conclusions. Now, I don’t expect any game that isn’t explicitly Christian to espouse Christian values—that assumption is baked into any game analysis I make. But Sea of Solitude builds its emotional payoff into its conclusions about discovering the proper way to deal with loneliness; as a result, much of that payoff is lost on me because of how my beliefs conflict with those the game promotes. Without giving away spoilers, suffice it to say that the game’s prescriptions prove too individualistic due to the lack of a gospel-oriented moral foundation.
Sea of Solitude’s simplistic gameplay doesn’t fare any better than its storytelling. Kay can move, jump, fire a magical flare, and perform a handful of contextual actions at set points. The flare is the only noteworthy mechanic; the vast majority of the time it serves as method of showing you where your next objective lies, but at certain places it acts as part of a puzzle sequence, launching at a specific object in the environment and subsequently affecting NPCs in the area. In either case, the flare never has to be aimed, as it flies in the proper direction once you let go of the trigger.
The flare actually isn’t used for core gameplay purposes very often, as most gameplay sequences center around linear platforming routes. Some of these segments introduce dangers present in the water, such as a large monster seeking to devour you or creepy hands that pull you under the moment you break the surface; others feature enemies that chase you if you come too close. All of these sequences are remarkably easy, requiring little thought or planning and only a smidge of trial and error. I particularly disliked the segments with the large monster, as these moments involved swimming to a platform and then just standing there, waiting for the monster wander off, so you can jump into the water again and make it to the next platform before you the monster can catch you. There’s no strategy here, only wasted time. A few collectibles scattered throughout the game world act as optional objectives meant to encourage you to branch out from the main path, but these branches don’t go very far and the collectibles offer little in the way of reward, so they’re not worth seeking in the first place.
The only truly enjoyable element of gameplay is the brief boating sequences, where you travel in your little motorboat from one part of the world to another. Even though there’s nothing to do here, you get a chance to soak in the game’s vibrant art style and pleasant ambient soundtrack while watching the boat playfully skip across the waves. But that’s really a backhanded compliment; the fact that the best part of gameplay is the part where you actually do the least shows how forgettable the overall gameplay experience is.
While I’ve torn into this game through almost all of the review so far, Sea of Solitude does have one substantial thing going for it, which is the aforementioned audiovisual presentation. The bold colors really pop during the brightly lit segments, with Kay and the other monstrous characters standing out from everything around them; meanwhile, the dark and stormy sections make good use of dramatic lighting. The soundtrack mixes the right amount of adventurous, soothing, and foreboding tunes to fit the mood, with the soft piano and violin accompanying your boat rides standing out in particular.
Unfortunately, looking and sounding good isn’t as important as gameplay or storytelling, and as a result, Sea of Solitude falls flat. The development team clearly put plenty of heart into the game, and a secular audience will likely appreciate its moral conclusions, but the numerous shortcomings of the gameplay alone hold it down. Hopefully Jo-Mei can build off of this simple foundation for future projects; if their skills as developers and storytellers can grow to match their passion, they could create some really special titles down the road.
The Bottom Line
Sea of Solitude sets up a strong premise and showcases a lot of heart, but its forgettable gameplay and mediocre storytelling hold it down.