Sea of Solitude
Mental health is a difficult subject to tackle in games. Achieving a tactful balance between game mechanics and tough themes requires insight, but it can make for a rewarding experience when the two intertwine in meaningful ways. Titles like Celeste and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice illustrate this, and Sea of Solitude boldly plunges into similar subject matter; its world is as beautiful as it is melancholy, with several characters opening up about how their lives are ravaged by mental health.
Sea of Solitude casts you as Kay, a young girl whose loneliness has transformed her into a literal monster. She navigates a partially submerged city, with blurry memories of a human past. Soon she finds out she’s not alone in this world, and she begins a quest of self-discovery in which she attempts to right previous wrongs by helping her family (who have also become beasts) find peace. Sea of Solitude introduces an intriguing premise with darkness hiding under the surface, and it largely succeeds despite occasional hiccups.
You spend your time travelling by foot and by boat, platforming over roofs and through cityscapes, avoiding dangers, and engaging with whatever grandiose monster – like a large, fear-inspiring crow – lurks in the area. I was always eager to see what the next beast awaited me would be, and how the world would change to reflect it, such as sunset skies and harsh waves when Kay’s parents bicker at one another.
Kay has a personal connection with each beast, whether that’s a reflection of a familiar darkness within herself or an embodiment of a tortured family member, which brings a fascinating depth to enemy encounters. I empathized with each major foe, and never wanted to hurt them. Luckily, I never had to. Boss battles in Sea of Solitude are not conventional fights; rather than defeating enemies, you help them overcome issues by clearing corruption, which increases Kay’s understanding of their problems and helps those in pain see clearly, such as two characters realizing its best to end a relationship that is dead in the water. It’s a clever approach that succeeds in driving empathy in the player, too.
Clearing corruption is your main goal in Sea of Solitude. Corruption points appear as glowing orbs with clouds of black smoke twirling around them. To eradicate these, you collect other smaller orbs by platforming around the area and doing light puzzle solving. You have a flare you can shoot into the air that helpfully guides you to your next objective, but it’s also your one and only weapon. Light defeats shadow enemies; sometimes you have to kill them before moving on or, as the gameplay evolves, turn them into allies so they can jump upon ledges you can’t reach to grab orbs for you. Fighting or manipulating enemies is a lackluster experience since it doesn’t require much strategy, and I preferred platforming moments that are intertwined with voiceovers that give insight into what happened to Kay’s family.
Puzzles, like defeating shadow creatures, are shallow. For example, you can trick enemies into chasing you to lead them away from a door you wish to enter. But the easy puzzles never bothered me much, since smooth progression allows the story to continue uninterrupted – and narrative is Sea of Solitude’s strength.
Characters have depth, and you learn more about Kay and others when clearing corruption. Problems are rooted in mental health, such as Kay’s boyfriend who is in a deep pit of depression and another sequence about a young boy being bullied. Most of these moments feel genuine, but I found the brief bullying storyline clumsy, especially when it delved into suicidal ideation in a sloppy way. Other times I took issue with stilted and awkward dialogue or when deeply personal themes were rushed.
However, some moments shine when the game lets its world speak for itself; I enjoyed seeing characters coming to grip with their reality on their own and how both the weather and aesthetic changed to emphasize these feelings. I love how the city becomes chilled and blanketed in snow when exploring the topic of a broken romantic relationship, or how a building with vents that spew steam fittingly reflects a father’s overwhelming anger.
Weather plays a significant role during exploration, with rainfall warning you of danger and sunny skies signaling safety. It’s a simple system that works well to inform the player when to brace for horrors, and there is a surprising amount of fright. A fish monster swims in the dark waters and if it catches you it violently tears you apart with its sharp teeth. Murky seas occasionally have ghostly hands that emerge from the depths that drown Kay if she touches them. All of this feels all the more terrifying because of Sea of Solitude’s barren world.
While an empty world is often seen as a negative in games, it feels appropriate here not just for the effective horror elements, but also because it reflects Kay’s feelings and adds intrigue to the mystery. I kept wondering how Kay ended up alone and why monsters are the only living beings left. Answers to these questions aren’t always handed to you, but I enjoyed trying to piece together bits myself through my own interpretations and messages left behind in bottles.
Sea of Solitude provides an insightful look at how mental health devastates the lives of not just those it affects, but also loved ones on the outside. Kay learns a lot about herself by understanding the value of listening, coming to term with her flaws, and not just empathizing with family but also accepting that a simple fix isn’t always possible.
This adventure game provides an insightful look at mental health inside a gorgeous and melancholy world.