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December 2022

Sea of Solitude

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Quantic Dream
Developer: Jo-Mei Games
Release Date: March 4, 2021

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Switch Review - 'Sea of Solitude: Director's Cut'

by Andreas Salmen on March 17, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Sea of Solitude is the adventure story of Kay, who has turned into a monster and her journey to find out what happened to her.

Buy Sea of Solitude: Director's Cut

Sea of Solitude was first released in summer 2019 on most platforms to a mixed reception. The debut project by German developer Jo-Mei received praise for tackling and extensively characterizing mental health issues in a video game through its dark story, although the presentation and gameplay never quite reached the same heights. In a rare move, Jo-Mei listened to some of that feedback and returns with a director's cut exclusively for Nintendo Switch. We checked out Sea of Solitude: Director's Cut to see if the port and improvements made it to the hybrid handheld without too many sacrifices.

I didn't play Sea of Solitude before this re-release, but I had seen the trailer and was fond of what the developer had tried to achieve. That means I cannot make direct comparisons to how the Director's Cut improved on the original, but I can say that I enjoyed Sea of Solitude more than I thought I would.

The game focuses on Kay, a girl who's haunted by her demons. Throughout the story, Kay tries to unravel her feelings by going back through her memories to understand how to overcome her sense of anger, anxiety, neglect and sadness. For 12 chapters, we take a close look at Kay's family history and the relationships with her brother, parents, and boyfriend, and how her altruistic behavior slows her down to a crawl as she faces monsters throughout the game. It's a polarizing story that doesn't portray issues in a subtle way, and some may feel that it's too simple and sad. Many people dismiss mental health issues and don't discuss them in the open, so I welcomed the game's frankness. The title values its story above all else, which is what ultimately prevents it from being the touching and engaging adventure that it wants to be.

As Kay, we traverse a surreal, flooded cityscape with a boat and a faint light to lead the way. The setting is often dark and unwelcoming, with the boat light being the only illumination as we search for our family members. It's essentially a walking (boating) simulator that goes back and forth between a few simple gameplay loops. We're either exploring by boat and following our guiding flare to the next objective, or we get out of the boat to make our way across the building rooftops or empty city streets.

The game switches between dark and illuminated moments throughout, most likely to not be completely depressing since it can sometimes feel that way. What eventually pushes us through the experience are the visuals and engaging story. Exploring linear parts of a sunken city where water may rise or fall depending on the stage is quite an exciting setting. There is a sense of scale, overwhelming heights and depths, light and darkness, and monsters below the surface that will punish every misstep. The visuals and storytelling work incredibly well together, and I enjoyed the experience no matter how dark things got, even though there are a couple of missteps in the game's short three-hour runtime.

The voice acting was a point of contention when it was first released, but the voice acting and some of the writing have been overhauled for the director's cut. Again, I'm not able to make direct comparisons, but to me, the voice work and writing sounded quite serviceable. They don't necessarily add a ton to the experience, but they don't work against it, either, which had been the case at launch.

Sea of Solitude is firmly rooted in a genre where gameplay is usually an afterthought, but it feels pushed to the extreme in this case since the same gameplay loop with slight variations is essentially repeated throughout the entire experience. Go with your boat to a point in the world, traverse some rooftops without falling in the water so you aren't swallowed by monsters, cleanse and activate some memories, and eventually dissolve a monster. The issue isn't necessarily the repetition but that the gameplay mechanics are lackluster. Controls are floaty and imprecise, and all you do is avoid some annoying creatures that push you around. It's a great experience during cut scenes and mild exposition when out in the world, but once gameplay is the focus, it quickly gets bland and boring. Stronger gameplay mechanics with a fun or interesting twist could've gone a long way to elevate the entire experience.

The biggest surprise wasn't related to the gameplay or story, but how well the title ran on the Switch. It takes a hit in sharpness with some aggressive sharpening, which can be controlled in the settings, but the large and open stages look and run well on the handheld considering the hardware limitations. There are further concessions, such as a very short draw distance and details popping in around you, but they don't detract from the experience much. It also managed to hold a stable frame rate most of the time, with some rare stutters in the larger areas. This is impressive, since the game is so heavily reliant on the visual style to get its message across. The audio, while not quite on par, is decent. The voice acting is fine, and the moody but calming soundtrack does a serviceable job of framing the experience. It's a solid effort that further adds some gyro controls (although they're rarely useful), HD rumble support, and a photo mode. It won't prolong the playtime, but the additions are nice nonetheless.

I'm aware that parts of this review may sound negative, but I'm glad to have played Sea of Solitude: Director's Cut on the Switch. It felt fresh and had an important message that it mostly succeeded in conveying. It's good if taken as an interactive experience, but it falters when taken as a video game. That's not necessarily bad, but it limits the potential a bit and may not sit well with everyone. Given how well this port turned out, it's worth a look if it piqued your interest and you haven't had a chance to try it elsewhere. This Switch iteration may be the best version of the game that you can currently play.

Score: 6.8/10

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