Sea of Solitude is a moving tale about self-discovery, bravery, and acceptance. It’s a brief but wonderful experience that can, at times, get in its own way. But ultimately it is an experience worth having.
In Sea of Solitude, a game brought to us by Jo-Mei studios, you play as Kay, a young woman who has found herself in a strange world packed with unsettling and ever-present “monsters”. She quite literally embarks on an adventure to leave the strange realm and help these monsters along the way, solving her own interpersonal issues as she goes. She soon finds out that these hulking beasts are those she loves most, and it’s pain that has caused them to take such ghoulish forms. As you traverse the world you will learn exactly how Kay has failed to help those around her in the past, and the ways she can help them moving forward. Sea of Solitudes’ adventure is one of both physical and introspective exploration.
The first aspect of Sea Of Solitude that caught my attention was admittedly, the gorgeous art style. The vibrant world set against the darkness of its monsters, even the player character, play off of each other incredibly well. The world itself feels tranquil at moments, the sounds of the ocean, the sun bouncing brightly off the architecture, and just as quickly it is chaotic, the waves crashing, the sky split by lightning. The landscape is as much a character as the monsters within it. However, some may find the overall design a bit simple and repetitive. I would counter and say that the simplicity of the world serves the narrative. In moments of calm, I wanted to stay put, to explore the ruins of a city that was crushed under the waves just moments ago. The music told me to stay, the sunlight calling me to linger for a moment longer. If the in-game world had been more complex, it would have made this easier. But Sea of Solitude is not a game about staying within the spaces that provide comfort, it is about moving forward into the spaces that strip you of that. In that regard, I think the game succeeds, prodding the player ever forward.
The moment to moment gameplay is not extremely varied either. What keeps you moving is the narrative. As you traverse this flooded city, you will learn more about the monsters and more about Kay. As I mentioned earlier, there are sharp contrasts in tone in this game. One moment you are navigating your boat through crystal blue waters, the next you are trapped on a floating piece of debris, being stalked by a beast with glowing red eyes. You can fight back against these monsters by cleansing corruption, by confronting the monsters that seek to sow doubt in the player. You’ll also help some of these monsters work through the trauma that created them, although to avoid spoilers I won’t go too far into detail. You’ll play through these monsters’ memories, seeing first hand what led them to their transformation. It’s in these moments where players will experience the most variety, as each story is quite different.
Players will be led through platforming and exploration sequences by the monsters themselves, or other forces at work in the in-game world. Once you’ve made it through the labyrinthian canals and rooftops of the city, you’ll engage in more scripted sequences. The narrative is delivered via voiceover as you play through the monster’s memories, the locations are not presented normally, however. You relive them as the monster saw them, felt them. One story, for example, takes place in a school filled nightmarish little shadows whispering in the dark, meant to represent the bullies a particular monster had to deal with. You must find the source of their trauma, and then work the monster through it in whatever way necessary.
The score plays a tremendous part in this title; from the soundtrack to the voice acting, to small sound effects and accents. When a monster comes too close, or the thunder is too loud, Kay will gasp audibly. Her fear alerts you to the dangers around you and heightens the anxiety some sequences are meant to cause. These moments are heightened further by the menacing whispers of monsters and shadows just behind you. While some can find the voice acting a bit hit or miss, the moments meant to make you stop and pay attention always feel earned.
Little audio cues aren’t the only small touches that make Sea of Solitude worth your time. Those audible gasps from Kay come with subtle animations, like jumping at the sound of thunder. Audio cues for monsters will keep you on edge. There’s also this sense of ever-presence, especially from one monster, in particular, yours. Sea of Solitude is a game about emotions, about loneliness, and depression. Having your own monster following you, just under the cresting waves, begging you to jump in and indulge the worst parts of yourself is menacing in a way that flips common game design choices. Sure I’m standing here waiting for an NPC to finish its patrol loop so that when its furthest away, I can sneak by. It’s something gamers have done for decades, but it’s somehow different enough when that NPC is frightening, when it’s begging me to fail, just far enough to barely swim away from but constantly close enough to keep you on edge. It’s a testament to some of the character design.
Again, Sea of Solitude is by no means perfect. It’s pitched as a highly personal artistic work, even on its official site and it definitely feels that way. There are narrative moments that stifle gameplay and vice versa. Some boss fights felt contrived, uninspired gameplay mechanics got in the way of confrontations I wanted to see more of, and some story beats influenced the gameplay in odd ways. Its formula of exploration and platforming followed by a memory sequence becomes apparent rather quickly. From a more technical perspective, I experienced some odd graphical hiccups, 2 or 3 times during my entire playthrough.
Sea of Solitude will take you just a few hours to finish, it is brief but impactful. Its themes of loneliness, depression, of self-doubt, are universal. Whether it’s a particularly touching note in a bottle you find at sea, or a story beat that tugs on your heartstrings, this game is likely to strike an emotional chord with players. If you enjoy titles like Depression Quest, Gone Home, or Life is Strange, you will most likely enjoy your time traversing the waves of Sea of Solitude. It might have some forgettable mechanics at moments, but it has narrative highlights that will remain with you. You may find that as you learn more about Kay and her family, that you will learn something about yourself.