The surreal and beautiful world of Sea of Solitude that you see in screenshots can be deceptive. The bright blue sky and orange hued buildings are merely a mask for a narrative that is steeped in heart ache, loss, and depression. Our protagonist, Kay, awakens to find herself having taken a less than human form. Drowning in her own loneliness, symbolized by the ever rising sea around her tiny boat, Kay has begun the transformation into a monster.
Kay is not the first to undergo this transition, as we will soon learn. This ominous flooded world is full of monsters, looming and ominous beasts, that are surrounded by corruption that only Kay has the power to clear. The metaphorical implication of this is evident, as Kay clears the corruption by absorbing it into her own backpack and continues to bear its ever growing burden throughout her own emotional journey.
Loneliness is only one of the mental health issues that Sea of Solitude takes on. Kay is haunted by a giant menacing whale – a stand in for her own depression- that follows her in the ocean and taunts her relentlessly. She tackles the relentless bullying and sexual assault experienced by her brother, and is trapped in the middle as her parents work through their own pain and trauma of a failed marriage.
Sea of Solitude’s narrative is vital. Its the sort of narrative that grips players when they need it most and can help them process their own feelings with regard to depression. At times, however, it feels like the narrative is competing with the game play for the player’s attention. While most of the story plays out with players controlling Kay for some light platforming, there are occasional crescendos in the story that require a little more finesse.
Kay doesn’t have any means for actual combat, but she is armed with a flare that she can use to create sources of light to rid herself of monsters that are chasing her. During some of the more emotional moments where players definitely need to focus on the narrative the most, the game pushes out of its platforming aspect to pit Kay against monsters that require more attention and effort. While the sequences control well, and the checkpoints are incredibly forgiving, it does still pull the player out of the immersion created by the otherwise rock solid narrative.
Whats worse is these sequences don’t really add to the narrative beyond serving as additional metaphors. One of the earlier sequences of the game pits Kay against her younger brother’s “friends” who are bullying him relentlessly. Kay needs to either run around these bullies to reach the glowing fragments that represent her brother or guide them to light sources that you activate with your flare to eliminate the shadow bullies. If you’re trying to focus on the pseudo-combat, you’re going to miss out on important bits of the story. Likewise if you focus on the story, you’re inevitably going to mess up the pacing of the combat and take enough hits that you get sent back to a checkpoint.
Sea of Solitude’s narrated path is almost always laid out before Kay, albeit in fairly subtle ways. In order to encourage players to navigate from the typical path, there are some collectibles in the form of messages in a bottle that can be discovered that uncover some additional commentary. Additionally, there are seagulls that, for some reason, Kay can shoo away from their perches. If you prefer to just experience the story on your first play through and focus on the collectibles at a later time, Sea of Solitude does offer a level select option with each act broken down into certain chapters and descriptive subsections. With so much care given to make specific scenes available to replay on the fly, it is a bit surprising that the developers have opted not to include a collectible counter on the level select screen, making it incredibly frustrating to track down which specific chapter you missed that one final cursed sea gull in.
Sea of Solitude shines as an emotionally gripping interactive story book. Guiding Kay through her heartache and depression is both eye opening and also personally cathartic. While the attempts at driving up tension with combat are a short termed miss for the game play, the rest of the Sea of Solitude’s allowance for casual exploration makes the game easy to dive into on your own terms.
A copy of the game was provided for this review by the developer/publisher