Since Sea of Solitude was revealed at EA Play in 2018, it’s a game I’ve wanted to get my hands on. It looked beautiful, had an interesting protagonist and on the surface it appeared to have something to say. I’m drawn to games that have something about them which leads to a resonance (Night in the Woods, What Remains of Edith Finch, That Dragon Cancer etc..) and so the wait was long for Jo-Mei’s deeply personal passion project. It felt like it had been a while since I really connected with a video game on that level. It’s a shame then that Sea of Solitude isn’t exactly all that I was hoping for.
You play as Kay, a young girl who is clearly struggling with the world around her. She is represented with glowing red eyes and black fur, seemingly created in such a way to represent her connection to the worlds monsters that she struggles to escape from. We meet her lost at sea, unaware of where she is and her surroundings being dark, solemn and without answer. The twist of Sea of Solitude is that she’s never really alone. Surrounded and hunted by monsters taking the place of human interaction, and a flying girl who gives Kay powers and a direction in her one person rowboat she uses to navigate this sunken city.
Exploring the distressed lands leads Kay to inevitably run into her demons, here demonstrated as beautifully designed monsters that will not leave her alone. After various confrontations you’re left to fend for yourself, keeping Kay out of harms way as the monsters swim in the gorgeous blue sea that surrounds her. They’re always nearby, and you’ll need to time your navigation on foot in order to avoid being eaten in a rather grisly death scene. It’s all rinse-and-repeat, you’ll eventually learn their routes and how to avoid them. Any moment Kay enters the water they’ll be on you, so moving swiftly to your destination is paramount. There’s nothing you can do if they catch up to you.
At first these moments can keep you on your toes. Kay is obviously struggling and you feel duty bound to keep her safe, to have her arrive somewhere where none of these horrifying monsters are attempting to destroy her. As mentioned above, the monsters are used as metaphors for her own inner demons and at times, it can feel very forced. An early monster has Kay responding to her psychological torture by simply responding ‘I’m trying!’, which felt just a little bit too on-the-nose for me.
It’s very difficult to critique how the issue of mental health is dealt with in Sea of Solitude, as I’m in no position to tell the developers that the dialogue felt tighter than it should have been to really get its point across. At no point did I feel like the game was handling its subject matter all that delicately, though I’m fully aware there are others who may find huge solace in Kay’s journey. Your reaction to her struggle will be entirely personal.
And there’s the ultimate issue; it’s just not engrossing enough. The gameplay elements are just okay, whether it be exploring on foot, climbing ladders, jumping from platform to platform and collecting bottles with letters in them that offer some backstory, being able to break down the darkness with an orb that was given to you by your floaty NPC at the very beginning of the game to make the world a little brighter. There’s no combat in the game, just demonic monsters (and creepy children who have this lovely chant of ‘we’re going to kill you’ just to keep you on your toes) who you need to escape from and all you have as means of offence is your orb light, used to power broken lights to ensure the monsters will stop chasing you if they can’t in the comfort of their darkness.
The more impressive sequences in the gameplay are where you’re tasked with following an orb of light across various areas, and as such require you to put on your platformer hat and reach it to finish a chapter or to escape the monsters. They aren’t particularly easy as segments have you jumping over the monster-filled water, with platforms just too far away to make it in a single jump, so you’ll need to leave enough time to swim over before you get eaten by the sea monster. Sadly these moments are a bit few and far between and in the games short run-time, it leaves the rest of the gameplay feeling lifeless.
The boss battles, if you can really call them that because you’re not physically attacking them is perhaps the games weakest aspect. They take various forms, whether it be running for your life from shadows that want to take over the light of your orb which doesn’t give you an awful lot of leeway in terms of escape. Your escape needs to be inch-perfect in order to escape lest the shadows be on you in a split-second. You have to hit the mark every time or it’s just far too easy for you to fail and you’ll have to start the sequence all over again. Infuriating chase sequences were the last thing Sea of Solitude needed on top of its rather cumbersome mechanics.
If you power through to the end you’ll have the game finished in around three hours, which was about as much as I could take without feeling an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Again, it’s a difficult game to just say ‘ah, it’s rubbish’, because this is clearly a game that’s been given so much care and attention by its developers and the story it tells feels immediately personal to its creators.
There is always a moment when a game like Sea of Solitude feels so damn profound. That games can be made like this with the sole intention of sending a message to its players. Before you’ve even picked up the controller the game begins with a statement;
‘The game contains sensitive topics that some players may find distressing, related to mental and emotional wellness. It is not intended to serve as professional advice or guidance.
Sea of Solitude is a personal project about loneliness, inspired by my own experiences and other real life stories. Kay’s journey is about what it means to be human and to live with all life’s ups and downs’.
I love that games such as Sea of Solitude even get made at all. Throughout the game we explore the terrifying mindset Kay finds herself in, exploring the relationship with her father through a sequence of burning furnaces, or the aforementioned demon children meant to represent the bullies of her younger brother. Kay explores this haunting world with all of this on her shoulders, and it’s a commonplace feeling that I’m sure most can understand, I certainly can. It’s just, Sea of Solitude, rather than Kay herself, made me feel rather empty.
I do commend EA – of ALL the companies – for taking a chance on Sea of Solitude. I absolutely believe that games have the power to tell wonderful, engrossing and heartbreaking stories and it’s great to see EA reach out with their Originals olive branch to smaller ideas and get them seen on a huge platform. It’s a real shame I couldn’t enjoy it more, and I feel like I should have. It really should have resonated with me. At its core it’s a game about pushing people away at your lowest, and how you take on every burden yourself as you don’t want others to feel the same way you do. I get that.
It’s something I struggle with an awful lot, the ‘put on a happy face’ way of existing can become tiresome, and can break people like it’s seemingly done to Kay. The idea ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ is something that’s finally being recognised by mainstream companies, and how reaching out to friends who may need a hand is so damn important, even if they push you away at first.
Wanting to help or more importantly, asking for help. Kay battles alone, and I just really wish the game allowed her story to be told a little more delicately, with more emotion and less force.
The impact is lost when everything that surrounds the entire point of the game just doesn’t do it justice.
There’s a terrific article by Riley Macleod on Kotaku if you want to read this same feeling from a different perspective. It shares a fair amount of what I’ve experienced with the game and how disliking it feels like a disservice to the passion of its creator.
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Sea of Solitude is out now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Jo-Mei Games
Publisher: EA Originals
In order to complete this review, we received a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy please go here.
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