Under the Waves Review
David Cage’s games are known for their emotional excess and melodramatic production. While Under the Waves is not a David Cage joint, it is published by Quantic Dream and shares a few of the game auteur’s trademarks. Parallel Studios has created a game with three strong — some might say heavy-handed — elements. The question is whether the themes and mechanics swim together or flounder and drown.
Swimming in Grief
Under the Waves is a survival crafting game but it’s surrounded by a couple of anything but subtle narrative themes. You play as Stanley, a deep sea miner/engineer, tasked with carrying out the directives of his employer, UniTrench. Without spoiling it further, Stan is reeling from a personal tragedy, literally drowning himself in work. He’s also drowning in grief and loss, so the isolation and mundane tasks — coupled with tenuous survival deep underwater — is the perfect place for contemplation. He’s under literal and metaphorical pressure from all sides.
There’s a second thematic element and mystery to the story. First, we’re not entirely sure what UniTrench is up to. We do know from Stan’s copious notes that the byproducts of pollution and human ocean exploitation are everywhere. Ecosystems are failing. The detritus of our technology is piling up. Parallel Studios has partnered with the Surfrider Foundation to ensure that all the info is correct and that the underwater world is authentic. This comes through quite clearly.
Both the themes of personal loss and environmental tragedy feel natural to the setting. Sometimes, though, the delivery gets a little heavy-handed. Some of Stan’s diaries read like didactic tracts on the effects of ocean exploitation. And some of Stan’s radio chatter with his UniTrench supervisor dives into monologue territory. Under the Waves is best when it’s subtle and less explicit with its ideas.
What’s a Person to Do?
Despite its thematic ambitions, Under the Waves is not a novel. It’s a game, which means Stan and the player have to do stuff. The opening minutes set the template. Stan has to swim to an underwater structure, open locked doors, find items, and reach a submersible. He pilots the mini-sub to a cluster of structures that will be his new home, docks, and starts to power things up. All the while, Stan needs to pay attention to oxygen levels and find canisters to replenish his supply.
For the majority of his time underwater, Stan’s day consists of a checklist of relatively menial tasks, most of which can be completed in any sequence. Some of these lead to exploration. Others are focused on resource gathering and crafting. Very few are mindless tasks. The game weaves its narrative into the missions, dialogue, and commentary. Although Under the Waves’ world isn’t immense, there is a sense of open-world freedom and it can be very relaxing to explore aimlessly while on a mission.
On the other hand, some of the mechanics around crafting and movement feel just a little underdeveloped or even superfluous. In particular, a few of the crafting tasks are absolutely imperative to complete. The game has a hard time keeping track of details and items as well.
Through the Porthole
Under the Waves goes for a slightly stylized art approach versus photographic realism. At first, I was a little put off by it, as there is a soft-focus, Vaseline-on-the-lens prettiness about everything. In time, I came to appreciate the game’s dream-like aesthetic. It looks real, but not realistic. The behavior of fish, marine mammals, and other life, shadows and light–all paint an immersive, lonely, meditative landscape. The contrast between the natural world and UniTrench’s engineered structures is dramatic.
The game’s music is ambient, electronic, and understated. It blends with the mechanical and natural sounds and the result is overall excellent audio. The voice acting is very good, even if the script can lack subtlety on occasion.
Come Up for Air
Although some mechanical elements suggest other games, Under the Waves uses deep sea exploration for its twin themes of personal grief and environmental exploitation in a unique way. There’s a lack of technical refinement here and there, and the messaging gets heavy-handed at times. Under the Waves is actually about something which puts it ahead of many other games in the survival crafting genre.
***PC code provided by the publisher for review***
- Interesting setting and graphics
- Thematic depth
- Excellent voice acting
- A bit of jank and some bugs
- Undercooked crafting
- Heavy-handed themes at times