Developer: Parallel Studio
Publisher: Quantic Dream
Platforms: Xbox One, Playstation 4, PC, Playstation 5, Xbox Series X (Reviewed)
Release Date: Available Now
Price: $39.99 USD – Available Here $79.95 AUD – Available Here
Throughout the last few years there has been a rise in games that tackle preservation and climate issues in a variety of ways. Some are subtle, trying to work their message into a grander story, while others are quite blatant with their messages and while many of these titles have seen certain levels of success, few, if any, have partnered with an actual environmental preservation group to help deliver their message. That is what makes Under the Waves something of a unique offering, combining the work of Parallel Studios partnering with Surfrider Foundation to deliver a tale of grief and isolation mixed with environmental messaging to some levels of success that struggles a bit with both its messaging and design.
Stan is a professional diver who has taken on a job for the deep-sea drilling company named UniTrench in the North Sea. Choosing such an isolated outpost, one that will see him working beneath the waves far from any other form of human contact is already a strange choice, but when that is compounded with the fact that UniTrench is a far from reputable company, his choice of choosing to work here is certainly a strange one, especially when one of the first conversations he has upon arriving in his isolated habitat on the ocean floor is to leave a message for his wife.
The reason for this choice quickly becomes clear as Under the Waves tells the story of a man struggling with an incredibly emotional loss and handling it extremely poorly. Following the traumatic event that saw him the life of someone precious to him, Stan has fled to the ocean to hide away in his sorrow, isolating himself from the rest of the world and choosing to undertake the daily lists of tasks that come from being an deep-sea diver for a mining corporation that is barely hanging together, using work as a method of escape.
For the most part Under the Waves does a solid enough job trying to blend together the story of Stan dealing with his overwhelming grief with him trying his best to keep UniTrench’s drilling efforts working without affecting the environment too much before eventually everything comes to a head as both elements come crashing together into a disastrous spiral that works incredibly well only to end up falling apart a bit at the end. The way that Under the Waves handles grief is a bit heavy-handed to the point that it is a bit too blunt, especially in the latter half of the game and while it does lead to some rather heart wrenching moments with plenty of impact, including some rather terrifying feeling moments, they are far more cumbersomely handled than the game’s other key storyline component, the ecological conservationist angle.
As mentioned before, players take on the role of a member of UniTrench but it doesn’t take long before it becomes clear that the company is up to no good and since the game is set in an alternate techno-futuristic 1970s, players familiar with oil giants of the time will be well-aware of the issues that may arise here. The game’s handling of these ecological impacts is far better handled and, in many ways, more meaningful as well, especially since a large amount of the game’s collectables and side-content relates to various elements of pollution, ecological disasters, and natural sea life. Players are encouraged to take photos of wild life they encounter while swimming through the ocean or piloting their submarine, unlocking extra bits of lore and even picking up random pieces of trash used for the game’s crafting system can often trigger bits of lore involving pollution that either happened in the past or is still happening today. This is likely due in part to the aforementioned Surfrider and helps really nail home many of the ecological elements as well as some of the wonder of simply spending time deep beneath the waves, enjoying your time with the ocean and the beauty of the marine life when there isn’t a disaster or grief induced hallucination happening.
Under the Waves is a rather uniquely designed narrative game as players are presented with a number of tasks that they must complete every single day, ranging from simply gathering a few items or crafting something, to venturing far out into the ocean using their submersible, called the Moon, to reach a distant UniTrench installation in need of maintenance. The puzzles that players need to solve in various locations are fairly simplistic in nature, with none of them actually being a challenge outside of perhaps spending a bit of extra time underwater figuring a certain puzzle solution out, using up Stan’s limited oxygen.
Alongside these “Daily Tasks” that players must complete every single day, which can often be tackled in any order or even put off for a bit should players choose to take part in the other big aspect of the game, underwater exploration. As mentioned before, what makes Under the Waves a uniquely designed narrative game is the fact that it does feature something of an open-world that players can explore as the ocean is filled with all sorts of collectables to discover, extra blueprints to unlock, wildlife to take photos of or simply witness, and much more. Whether it is piloting the Moon submarine, which handles fairly well as one would expect, or swimming out on his own when going a short distance or needing to enter a tighter location, players will find that the swimming and piloting mechanics handle exceptionally well here, to the point that, despite the game featuring repair kits for the submarine, was never actually needed.
Along these same lines, the crafting system that is implemented into Under the Waves also feels a bit tacked on as, outside of mandatory items that must be crafted, the system can be almost entirely ignored. Sure, Stan may need to use oxygen refills that can be crafted before venturing out into the sea but the game often provides enough of these that players can easily stockpile up on them without actually needing to craft them, nor do most of the unlockable blueprints feel like they are worth tracking down. That being said, at least the best part of the exploration, navigating the sea and experiencing the deep ocean, remains a truly enchanting endeavor.
It is also worth noting that, alongside some visual bugs which we will mention in a moment, that Under the Waves isn’t without its own issues on the Xbox Series X. On more than a handful of occasions the game would crash to the home screen seemingly out of nowhere and players will often need to fiddle with their positioning on certain interactables to properly trigger the activation sequence, something that happens far too frequently to not be a bit annoying as well as one instance that saw Stan trapped inside the Moon submarine, forcing a reload of a previous save.
Audio & Visuals
It is quite evident that the developers of Under the Waves care quite a bit about marine life simply through how lovingly crafted the underwater visuals and swimming physics are handled. Players will be treated to some truly wonderful looking sights as they travel through the ocean and encounter all kinds of marine life down in the depths and these wondrous open areas are mirrored perfectly by the tight, nearly suffocating, feeling designs of the wreckages and mining equipment players will need to navigate. Experiencing the stark contrast between manmade construction and destruction alongside natural fauna remains consistently impressive. Unfortunately while swimming and everything moving through the ocean may feel wonderful, the actual walking animations and a few of the more mundane day-to-day animations are far more cumbersome. The transition from swimming to walking is rough to put it generously, often placing players out of position and, on numerous occasions, resulting in getting stuck in the level geometry for a bit. It is also worth noting that various mundane activities around the habitat often have glitched animations in one way or another and while some of these appear to have been fixed, they still happen frequently enough to be noticeable.
The soundtrack for Under the Waves is a perfect blend of melancholic tracks that both fit the somber and wonderful feeling of exploring the depths of the ocean as well as the depths of sorrow that Stan is dealing with throughout the game. The voice work is serviceable at best, with Stan’s performance being a bit of a mixed bag, though this is mostly due to random cheery sounding voice clips appearing during more dire sequences when completing tasks. Otherwise his performance during most dramatic moments, including some of his lone monologues dealing with his grief and solitude in the deep are quite striking.
Under the Waves tells a unique narrative blend that combines grief with its message of preserving nature in a way that doesn’t always mesh the best but still delivers a number of impactful moments all the same, some a bit more hamfisted than others. Along these same lines, its pseudo open world allows for plenty of wonderful exploration in the deep sea mixed with bugs and a lack of polish on smaller details that build up to become noticeable issues.
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