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Sea Of Solitude Review: A Perfect Presentation Of Difficult Subject Matter

Sea of Solitude, from developer Jo-Mei and published by Electronic Arts, is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, bringing with it an incredibly deep dive (pun intended) into the themes of depression, loneliness, and hopelessness. The game achieves this through its beautifully constructed abstract world, which can appeal to a wide audience, most of whom can relate to the game’s themes at some level. Sea of Solitude is a charmingly heartbreaking adventure platformer that succeeds in conveying the different ways that we, as humans, experience loneliness and the effect that those feelings have on the people around us.

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From the start, it is clear that players are in for an emotionally heavy gameplay experience, evidenced by the refreshingly honest pregame message from the game’s director, Cornelia Geppert, detailing the inspiration for Sea of Solitude having come from her own experiences of loneliness. The game’s overall theme is shown through a variety of ways that loneliness can be experienced, such as bullying, divorce, and depression. Although these topics are inherently negative, Sea of Solitude does an exemplary job personifying each of the emotions associated with such heavy topics through beautifully crafted visuals, immersive audio, and great storytelling.

A Different Kind Of Water World

Sea of Solitude tells the story of a twenty-something woman named, Kay, who wakes up alone on a small rowboat in the middle of a vast, dark, and empty ocean. She navigates her way through the wet world - a world in which she has visited before - encountering monstrous creatures that she has to overcome by destroying their corruption. The monsters are representations of the negative elements surrounding Kay, including her younger brother, Sunny, her mother and father, and her former lover, Jack, all of whom weigh heavily on Kay (literally), who takes upon herself to rid them of their burdens by putting their problems in her backpack.

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All the while, Kay is stalked by a massive, predatory sea creature who speaks to Kay as though it is a part of her. Of all of the monsters that Kay encounters, this one is without a doubt the most unsettling, which is intentional. So long as Kay remains out of the water, the monster cannot eat her. Of course, there are moments when Kay is required to swim from one point to another. Keeping an eye on the creature to make sure it is far enough away is of the utmost importance when deciding to make her move. The moments spent in the water are truly hair-raising and tense, as the energy and tone shifts from Kay being relatively safe, albeit in the stormy environment, to vulnerable and desperate. Thankfully, those stressful moments balance perfectly with the game’s lighter, more tender moments.

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

Players are able to know exactly where to go thanks to Kay’s ability to send a flare into the sky, leading her wherever she needs to go. Once she completes an objective or defeats one of the monsters, the dark and dreary surrounding environment is replaced by a sunny, cloudless paradise. In all honesty, while playing Sea of Solitude, I felt physically heavy during the game’s darker moments, but felt like that weight was lifted when the scene changed. Those calm, peaceful scenes allow for a slower pace, letting players explore the areas engulfed by water.

The water-logged city - loosely based on Geppert’s hometown of Berlin - provides a few opportunities for exploration, but Sea of Solitude is pretty linear and by no means an open-world game. Kay can collect bottles containing messages, as well as "shoo" seagulls from ledges and up into the air, which provides brief aerial views of the area for Kay to explore. The bottled messages from an unknown person are nice to collect along the way, as they provide a feeling that Kay is actually not alone in the lonely world. These innocent, carefree moments are welcomed relief from Sea of Solitude’s otherwise devastating chapters.

Brilliance While Being Uncomfortable

One such handful of chapters touches on the topics of bullying and suicide. Without divulging too much, Kay learns that her younger brother has been the victim of bullying from other children whom he had considered to be his friends. Navigating through a flooded school and gym while avoiding the shadowy-figured, violent bullies is, in a word, intense. Not only do the visuals become more menacing and dark - one room literally becomes pitch black other than the glowing, angry eyes of the bullies - but the music, sound effects, and dialogue make for a truly haunting and incredibly sad experience.

“We’re going to find you, we’re going to kill you,” is echoes in whispers repeatedly as Kay makes her way through the school, while former conversations between Sunny and his so-called “friends” play, filling Kay in on the awful things that were happening to her younger brother. The entire experience is uncomfortable to play through and pretty tough to stomach, including listening to a prior conversation with Sunny confessing to a distracted Kay that, “... maybe it would be better… if [he] stopped living....” That said, the difficult scenes are expertly crafted, immersing players enough to care about the characters. Kay learns from this lesson, as she does from the other 13 chapters throughout the game.

A Deep Dive Worth Your Time

Although the narrative itself isn’t exactly happy in nature, it is easy to want to know what happens next in the story. Venturing through each chapter is enjoyable thanks to the simple controls and solid platforming action. Puzzles exist is the form of exploring surroundings to figure out where to go, but it is all pretty intuitive. All of these elements lead up to an incredibly satisfying ending, along with a tease that Kay’s “sea” may not be the only one that players will dive into.

Mental health and wellness is a topic that is seeing far more people take seriously now than in years past, and one that is becoming more prevalent in gaming as well. Sea of Solitude presents the difficult subject matter perfectly in every way, and can easily be mentioned in the same breath as other games that focus on mental health, such as Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and Celeste.

5 Out Of 5 Stars

A copy of Sea of Solitude was purchased by TheGamer for this review. The game is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

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