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Review: Sea of Solitude Offers a Dreamscape Awash in Banal Abstraction

Its repetitive tasks are like the usual arbitrary gates to reach a cutscene in a mediocre video game.

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Steven Scaife

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Sea of Solitude
Photo: Electronic Arts

An endless ocean submerges an orange-bricked German city, its rooftops drenched in sunlight or doused in rain as they poke through the watery barrier. The soft, cartoonish look of this place seems to deserve a word like “beautiful.” On the other hand, leading Sea of Solitude’s black-feathered, red-eyed protagonist, Kay, into collectible memories, which queue up wistful dialogue snippets from a life outside her metaphorical turmoil in the waterlogged city, might warrant something like “heartfelt.” The vocabulary for evaluating a game like Sea of Solitude, which is designed completely around emotions and various manifestations of mental health, may sound positive, but it’s also undeniably familiar.

Puttering across the sea on her tiny motorboat or hopping around sun-kissed platforms, Kay encounters literalized inner demons. Many of them are dark things to be avoided. Others can be led into the light that will destroy them. A monster in its shell blocks Kay’s path, and whispering, anonymous shadows follow her if she gets too close to them. Clouds of gloomy thought become actual baggage once Kay walks up to a glowing orange circle and the player presses the button that sucks those clouds into her ballooning backpack. The themes of loneliness and empathy are quite explicit here, and if familiarity and explicitness aren’t inherent problems, in Sea of Solitude they’re nonetheless the symptoms of the game’s difficulty envisioning a unified wrapper for feelings it wants to evoke.

The mechanical trappings of Sea of Solitude are basic to the point of feeling perfunctory, like mindless tasks to perform while each new floating orange circle spoons out dialogue for thematic context. It’s all mostly polished, of course; Kay flops around a little as she walks, and she visibly shivers at the whip-crack of thunder and lightning. You’ll jump, sail, melt ice, and illuminate shadowy figures, but the connection between these actions and the intended emotions always feels tenuous at best because they rarely have a discernible effect on or specific ties to the world in front of you. The dialogue colors in some world that’s conspicuously beyond Kay’s metaphorical dreamscape; though she claims to recognize certain places in the city, most seem indistinguishable from the last. All of these repetitive tasks seem more like the usual arbitrary gates to reach a cutscene in a mediocre video game.

There are fleeting moments of empathetic power over Sea of Solitude’s brief runtime, where the imagery and the action coalesce into some recognizable slice of Kay’s life. But so much of the game feels only slightly more cohesive than someone scribbling the word “depression” over, say, a picture of a person being eaten by a shark. Games like Psychonauts or The Gardens Between work a character’s personal details into the level design, while the horror game Devotion uses specific objects and actions to supplement the rising tide of memory. Sea of Solitude, however, is so blandly abstract that it loses any sense of specificity.

The game was reviewed using a download code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Jo-Mei Games Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Language Buy: Game

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