The EA Originals program has been going strong these past couple of years. As its most high profile release, A Way Out was a fairly major success thanks to its unique take on co-operative gameplay, while smaller titles such as Fe and Unravel have helped to somewhat diversify EA’s portfolio beyond sports titles and Battlefield. It’s a positive initiative, but it looks like we’ve stumbled upon its first dud. Sea of Solitude, from German developer Jo-Mei Games, has something to say, but its message drowns amongst an ocean of indifference. It’s just sort of okay.
Corneila Geppert and her team set out to create a game based on loneliness, and it shows. As Kay, you’ll explore a vast stretch of sea aboard a rowing boat - with the kicker being that these waters are inhabited by monsters. They hit a lot closer to home than you might think, though, as those beasts of the deep inherit the voices and personalities of Kay’s family members and closest friends. It’s an exploration of problems and issues that were right there before her very eyes, but were never picked up on due to the protagonist’s inconsequential battle with young love.
Sea of Solitude is a commendably personal project, but it comes across as far too on the nose. Ham-fisted dialogue fails to do the game’s themes justice, while poor voice acting will have you wincing and cringing one too many times. Certain sequences touch on bullying, the consequences of your actions, depression, and self-loathing, but rather than approaching them with an ounce of subtlety, the game more or less beats you over the head with it. Such messages will resonate with some more than others, but it's done clumsily at even the best of times.
While it can’t be considered an open-world, Kay’s journey is a mixture of linear sequences broken up by fairly open-ended exploration of the ocean. You’ll navigate its waves via a rowing boat, but there are times where you’ll need to make it to land. That’s because the aforementioned monsters would love nothing more than to have a nibble on some human flesh. As such, you’ll need to follow a sort of ball of light across the tops of buildings to make it to your next objective, all the while avoiding staying in the water for too long.
It’s a little too basic and not in the least bit thrilling. Following the ever-present orb means you’ll always know where to go, but the monsters that stand in your way offer very little in the way of challenge. Just hold back on your jump for a handful of seconds to give them a chance to swim by and you’ll have more than enough time to reach the next structure. Because of that, it all feels a little too mindless.
The experience improves to a degree within its more linear environments as a couple more one-time mechanics present themselves. Using air vents, navigating a tall structure becomes second nature, while balls of corruption must be destroyed via a hold of the R2 button at close range. Sometimes you’ll need to collect the smaller orbs spread throughout the environment before you can do that though.
These simple requirements are only one step above what you do on the water’s surface, however, meaning the complete package makes for a very basic undertaking overall. Tasks will very rarely challenge you, as the game’s take on boss fights are completely trivial, and generous checkpointing means you’ll never lose progress should you fail.
Four to five hours is enough for you to see the title through to its conclusion, and it very much feels like a one and done after the fact. Two types of collectables are there to be found - messages in bottles and seagulls to shoo away - but any effect they do have on your understanding of the plot is nonexistent. They’re completely throwaway in every sense.
Contrasting that completely is the game’s stunning art style. Bright and vibrant colours paint a world lost to the blue ocean, but it’s the dark and mysterious monsters that live within it that are the real lookers. As they twist and contort around buildings and break the water’s surface to greet you, their black, prickly bodies pose a real ominous threat to Kay. You’ll have no trouble avoiding them in practice, but at least they look gorgeous in the rear view mirror.
The most impressive moments of all though come about when the sea parts ways to reveal an entire town below it. It’s a real sight to behold as the water that once covered offices, shops, and parks evaporates and reveals streets and alleyways begging to be explored amongst an inviting sandy seabed.
It’s hard to call Sea of Solitude a bad experience, but it feels very pedestrian at almost every turn. Bland gameplay means you’ll rarely be doing anything too exciting, in turn making the short run time all the more suspect. Beautiful visuals and themes that may resonate with some are minor highlights, although they’re not enough to make up for insipidity.