In an imperfect world where we all struggle with the isolation that comes with our mistakes, inadequacies, and insecurities, how can we press on? Understanding this question gives life to Sea of Solitude, a game by Jo-Mei Games centered on the raw emotions that come in consequence to a lack of understanding from those around you. This makes for a gripping story and strong characters, both of which are easy to connect to on a deep and profound level. However, as we often see when the focus of a game is its narrative, it lacks some of the depth on the mechanical side that you would see in a high-end title.
Sea of Solitude explores the past of Kay, a young woman who finds herself to be a kind of beast trapped in a city flooded with water. This water can beam with clarity and beauty or hide devastating creatures under its murky waves. Kay traverses this fickle sea discovering both lost memories and the roots of ones she already has. Through it all, the true adventure lies in the exploration of her mind, heart, and soul as she unveils the secret behind surviving loneliness.
Throughout this eye-swelling journey, you can’t help but feel for Kay as she finds that those who are closest to her take on the form of monsters not dissimilar to those that she’s been evading time and time again. Her connections with these people really blossom and demonstrate Cornelia Geppert’s writing prowess. Unfortunately, Miriam Jud’s performance as Kay falls a bit below the bar at infrequent but noticeable times. In subsequent irony, the supporting cast of Alexander Tol, William Ludwig, and Max Pohl actually sparkles and serves up a smorgasbord of emotional realism. There’s a ton of detail in the animation of the characters’ expressions, but these actors, as they should, really capture the essence of each character’s emotional state at any given point in the game, something that does wonders for a game exploring mental health and loneliness. The value of a strong cast cannot be understated, but the true importance of this all lies within the game’s ability to connect with you deeply just as they connect with Kay.
The game covers cliché topics such as school bullying, depression, and a strained marriage. Attempts at a new retelling of those same two stories border on dangerous for any game, film, or novel, but you find beauty in the perspective. Kay’s role as the sister, girlfriend, and daughter leaves her in a relatable situation where the lives around you begin to crumble and you can’t help but feel helpless. This goes without mentioning the parts of it where you feel you could have done something more. Collectively, these elements illustrate the unquivering power of leaning on others. As life unfolds around you, it’s easy to feel trapped and abandoned, but that’s why you cannot rely solely on yourself.
One of the biggest keys to mental health is the people you surround yourself with and how you treat and interact with them. Those people can bear the load with you. No sports match, no championship, no battle, and no war was ever won by a single person. When things around you begin to crumble, when life takes a crushing grip of your throat, when you feel lonely, blamed, and imperfect, you need to look to those closest to you for a hand to grab to stop you from falling. Furthermore, the key is not minimizing your imperfections, but rather relying on others’ good fortune where you have fallen short. These are the notes that Sea of Solitude plays in this song of life.
As always, such a deeply-written theme draws questions of how this can be played in a game. How do you translate emotional turmoil onto a controller or keyboard and mouse? Sea of Solitude struggles in answering such a question. While very little is technically wrong, the mechanical aspects of the game simply weren’t given the same attention and detail as the narrative. The strongest story-driven experiences offer gameplay that has a dialogue with the plot. While difficult to achieve, it’s what sets apart certain games on their own levels, something Sea of Solitude simply cannot reach. Besides the typical run-jump-interact abilities, very little goes into the gameplay. The only parts that create the aforementioned dialogue come when you must do your best to fight through a school full of adolescents waiting to attack you. This particular part which comes somewhat early in the game demonstrates Kay learning how to take on someone else’s issues by drawing a bullseye on her own head. She must make her adversaries chase her in order to clear a path. The rest of the game attempts to do something similar, but it doesn’t present itself as meaningfully.
A similar lack of meaning can be seen in the surprisingly vast world you can explore. There are portions of the game where you are given the chance to drive your boat around the sea and try to find buildings with bottled messages and seagulls, but this simply isn’t a good enough reason to go searching for them. The bottles tell an uninteresting side story and it’s unclear to me exactly what the seagulls are meant to do besides be collected. Since these collectibles are so strange and disingenuous, I’ll avoid talking in great detail about the blandness of exploring the world, because there’s really very little need to, and this could certainly be a complete, quality game without the tiny bit of motivation there is to go adventuring beyond the main tale. However, for my fellow completionists out there, it does come as a slight annoyance considering the potential is there.
Adding to the annoyance is the lack of intuition with boat mechanics. For such a large part of the game, this traveling the world by boat can sure be frustrating. In games, there are times for realism (like the flow of water or the emotion of a character) and times for fabrications (like double jumps or changing momentum in the air). There is no reason for the boat to behave realistically. Steering from the back is just frustrating in a video game and I imagine it will always be like that. Combining this with the directional inputs being relative to the camera makes for a rocky experience in the boat. What do I mean? Well, let’s say you want to go backward and see behind you at the same time. Well, you can’t go backward in a real boat, so you have to turn yourself all the way around, which is something the game will do for you without your input, but it’s so imprecise and wonky. In addition, instead of pressing the “S” key or down on the joystick, you have to go forward because forward isn’t based on the boat’s direction, but rather the camera’s direction. Just… ugh! Too much aggravation here.
Thankfully, I don’t mind it as much because I have something to look at every turn. This is probably one of the strongest games visually all year. The game makes perfect use of contrasts like light and dark, blue and orange, clear and foggy, and calm and stormy. As a result, the game pops and offers a show of epic proportions for the eyes. This all grows into the captivating atmosphere at play in Sea of Solitude. Everything, from the boat to the weather to the buildings, feels alive. Feeling just radiates off the screen when you’re playing, and you feel it almost immediately in your soul after clicking the icon on your desktop. The game has just about as much depth atmospherically as it does thematically. The sudden yet fluid transitions from dark, dreary, and rainy to bright and hopeful do the game a ton of favors. These types of visual cues done correctly increase the emotional investment of the player and it’s very well done here.
The animation also deserves its own round of applause. Facial expressions are usually pretty black and white. It’s either there or it’s not, and the presence of genuine faces can immerse and absolutely enthrall the player in a story. This is part of why people feel so connected to Commander Shepard in the original Mass Effect trilogy and wouldn’t wipe their rear ends with Scott and Sara Ryder in Mass Effect: Andromeda. The time and effort can be unparalleled when doing this well, but it pays off tremendously. Sea of Solitude is just another beaming example. You find yourself caring deeply for monsters before they’re even revealed to be more than just beasts.
Sea of Solitude makes your heart ache, your eyes water, and your mind race. Many games forget to make you part of the world and the plot and characters within it, but Jo-Mei brings it all to life in gorgeous fashion. As a game, it falls short of excellence, but come December, there’s no doubt in my mind that The Game Awards will have its eyes set on this game as a nominee for multiple categories. Cornelia Geppert and her team tell an inspiring tale fraught with impeccable details. More depth in the actual gameplay and polish on the mechanics would’ve made this title a home run.
This review of Sea of Solitude is based on roughly a four-hour playthrough of the game on PC.
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