Sea of Solitude bungles a lot of its execution, but it manages at least one tremendous feat: it puts you fully within the perspective of the protagonist. That’s something a lot of games try to do and even purport to do, but it’s rarely true. There are not many times you can fully comprehend the feeling of being a space marine or master detective by tapping some buttons.
But with Jo-Mei Games’ latest, they do exactly that with Kay. She’s alone in a vast, desolate world. The barest agreement that she exists is under assault. The only thing either of us knows, in fact, is that we are both lost.
This dinghy you’re on came from nowhere and is headed…somewhere? The waters are shaky under darkened, stormy skies, but a light ahead brings something that feels like a promise—some sort of historical transaction that urges you to go toward the light. Both literally and metaphorically, you and Kay are in the same boat. It’s an opening that resonates deeply with anyone.
Most of the game does, really. The desire to unravel the unknown is innate with us, and the game is built around that idea. Why does Kay look the way she does, shadowy and crimson? What has provoked these underwater monsters—fearsome creatures that share a visual bent with us—to hunt her so relentlessly? What turned this city to ruins?
For the most part, the game explores these questions with satisfying intent. There is little to no room for interpretation (consider it aligned with the effect of What Remains of Edith Finch‘s storytelling). These monsters are revealed to be experiences from Kay’s life. Be it people or emotions or memories, they are a part of her, even if now they are assaulting her and driving her further into herself.
But the game also manages to shift these feelings of isolation. As ethereal and menacing as it starts—calling to mind the works of Playdead—it rewards you something as expansive and freeing as the likes of a Fumito Ueda vista. It never stops being portentous, but there are new shades of liberation—of something just over the horizon. It’s never perfectly joyous but it’s also never completely malicious. It is an equilibrium, a thesis of the game’s meditation on mental health.
The problem is that to bring about this turn, you have to actually play the game. The base mechanic is using Kay’s backpack to collect corruption, represented by swirling pockets of darkness. And the rest of the time is spent working through rather rudimentary traversal and gating puzzles to avoid getting eaten by monsters. It’s repetitive and far from engaging (and often punitive due to the unpleasant platforming). The only allure is knowing that you will be given a peek at what lies ahead.
And that is both a positive and a negative. The strict narrative structure that maps directly to Kay’s life and her desire to detach herself from reality allows the game to more incisively explore these kinds of psychological traumas. But it also feels at times like it wants to do what Gris does, offering an open-ended experience that allows the player to fill the story with their own memories and emotions.
The story, somewhat surprisingly, tends to work best then when it splits the differences. It uses the sharp and focused direction to avoid emotional or revelatory lulls but also manages to stop short of being painfully on the nose. Like when Kay comes across a monster that tells her this is the furthest she’s gone in these waters. It’s a heartbreaking, deathly efficient line that says so much more than a full level ever could.
But there are also times when it’s so direct, that it can’t be anything but impactful. A monster yells at her, “You worthless piece of shit. You have no idea what you’re doing, do you, as usual.” It’s a startling moment. Who gave the game permission to quote yourself back to you.
It’s also in these moments that the game luckily avoids the trap of presenting those with mental health issues as monsters in the world and rather makes the different point that mental illness can make us feel like monsters. The recognition we have with ourselves starts to fall out but the familiarity returns within a monstrous form. After we tell ourselves that we’ve become monsters for so long, it’s hard not to see that as the truth.
As unremarkable and occasionally unpleasant the gameplay can be, it’s important to note what Sea of Solitude does manage to achieve in its compact four-hour duration. And that is put you completely and thoroughly in the waterlogged, heartbroken shoes of a tender, lonely woman named Kay.
Final score: 6 out of 10