In moments, Sea of Solitude is a personal, poignant journey and a soul-stirring experience, but more often it's undermined by ungainly writing and voice work, as well as gameplay that gets monotonous quicker than its monsters kill you. Sea of Solitude instantly submerges you in its heavy and intimate themes, and for the most part it swimmingly navigates the subject matter, but there are some ham-handed moments that made me want to come up for air more than once.
In Sea of Solitude, you play as Kay, an adolescent girl whose loneliness has transformed her into a monster-like creature who finds herself in a familiar yet dreamy world that is being swallowed up by the sea. The world is built from her blurry memories, and is populated by that which haunts them. As she set sails to explore and search for answers, she comes across creatures both fantastical and monstrous. While some are here to aid her in her quest of rectifying self-discovery, the latter are there not only to stop her, but to sink her deeper. In this sense, the game is not only reminiscent of a Team Ico game, but evocative like they are as well.
Sea of Solitude is only a four-hour experience, but it's a journey that unravels slowly, not in a plodding way, but with purpose. When you're not sailing through a European-inspired sinking city, you're on foot, climbing over things, platforming on roofs, taking in the views, and trying to avoid the danger in the waters beneath. This experience ranges from idyllic as you explore a bright, beautiful city to melancholic when you explore the same surroundings transformed by Kay's fear, loneliness, and every negative emotion that literally sucks the color from the world and mutates a state of tranquility into a state of solitariness. The way the world transitions depending on what's happening around Kay is a nice touch, even if it's not always deftly done.
These fantastical beasts and monsters are more than just there for cool cinematic moments and thematic touch though. They embody the emotions and characters in Kay's life that one way or another have contributed to her current, troubled state of being. Fear, doubt, regret;, these are real monsters everyone struggles with. Other times, these beasts are stand-ins for Kay's tormented loved ones. You don't fight these head on though, as you wouldn't win, just like in real life. Rather you navigate the world to find corruption points, and clear that corruption, which allows Kay to see things more clearly.
In your quest to clear corruption, you'll need to perform some light platforming and occasionally exercise light puzzle solving. You also have a flare, which has multiple uses, but is chiefly the light you need to overcome and manipulate shadowy enemies. There's not much to these rudimentary sequences, however, and they are instantly monotonous.
Sea of Solitude's narrative unfortunately isn't always strong enough to shoulder the weaker aspects of the game. And this is the risk you take when you tell a very personal story. It plays and relies on the ability to relate. Carrying my own baggage, some parts of the game's narrative really resonated with me, but other parts fell a bit flat, and stilted dialogue and inconsistent writing eroded my empathy. Depending on your situation in life, where you're now and where you've been, Sea of Solitude's emotional wave can knock you back and sweep you into the sea or feel like mist in the face.
While the dialogue in the game often nosedives the moment it occurs, its original soundtrack really soaks the experience with atmosphere. Moments of tension are coupled with harrowing music that tightens and twists. Meanwhile, more than once a piano washes over you during more somber moments. And thankfully, there's pretty good sound design to bolster this.
What doesn't bolster the experience though is the collectibles, which act as the singular bit of side content in the game. There's two collectibles: one that adds nothing other than something to do, and one that sprinkles a bit of lore into the world, though nothing substantial enough that you need to go out of your way. You'll find both as you play the game, but to find all of each you'll need to explore and wander off the path quite a bit. Not only do the collectibles feel superfluous, but to find every one can be tedious as many of the environments look similar, and thus it can be a hassle to determine what has and hasn't been explored.
While Sea of Solitude manages to be distinctive, it certainly isn't the only game to explore mental health in the past few years. And like many that attempt to tackle the topics and themes that come with this, Sea of Solitude struggles at times. When it gets things right, it's a touching experience with a lot to say, but too often what it has to say is drowned out by heavy-handed writing, poor line delivery, and unimaginative gameplay that juxtaposes a fantastical and metaphorical world.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Disclosure: ComicBook is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.