After my first hour or so of this game, I wasn’t sure I was going to play further.
Oh, the game had plenty of atmosphere by that point. The underwater elements have this ethereal quality to them that make everything feel very much like you’re drifting under a vast ocean. It adds to the feeling of being in an alien world that a lot of metroidvanias aim for, particularly those that lean harder on the “Metroid” part of that game. But atmosphere’s not quite enough for me to fully buy into a game.
After all, I still have to play it.
I’m not a huge fan of the underwater level in gaming period, and Shinsekai’s whole premise is that you’re underwater the whole time. The mechanics translate into that. The motions all feel a bit awkward and clunky; your character controls precisely how they look: like a person wearing an old fashioned diving suit.
This often means that you’re clumping around the environment. They’ve done something neat in that you can utilize your oxygen to jet around various places, essentially giving you flying from the start. This feels like another game of a similar vein, Owlboy (though that one banked a lot more on its narrative than anything else). The mechanics definitely took some getting used to. By the time I got to the first boss (pictured above), I had sort of gotten them down, but they frustrated me almost as much as they helped.
I get the whole immersion thing, but it wasn’t until late in the game when I had several oxygen tanks and a fleet of upgrades that I actually felt like I could move comfortably. That may be part of what they’re selling here; a large part of enjoying games of this genre is watching your powers unfold and develop as we go. But it still provided such an annoyance, particularly when you have to actively run away from things in the first section (the whole impetus for the plot is that ice encroaches on your home, though we’re never given an explanation for why and it never appears again; it’s literally just there to start the “plot”).
The game’s exploration and feel is entirely saved by that sub above. It adds an additional game play element, and suddenly you feel less like a lost diver floundering their way through a hostile deep and more like an explorer… floundering their way through the hostile deep. The sub controls a bit floaty like everything else in this game, but it operates a bit smoother than the diver, doesn’t have air issues, and even seems more or less invincible (save for a boss fight that you get into later).
This really adds to the exploration elements, and that’s a lot of what Shinsekai is built on. I’ve seen people calling it a relaxing exploration game, and after you get through that first hour or so, that’s what you get for the next seven hours (it took me around eight hours to beat the game, and I got most of the hidden stuff, missing only a few upgrades and trinkets).
They don’t do a great job rewarding you for exploration. Too often you’d go through this hidden path, only to have your prize be that you… found a mysterious marine creature. Sometimes that creature would be hostile, sometimes not (another issue with the game: I never knew what was going to attack me or not, which I guess is part of the point?). But they almost never gave you any tangible reward.
If it wasn’t a marine creature, it was a literal trinket, usually a bobble head or something. It’s entirely possible these unlock something useful in the main menu, but they felt most like collectables for the sake of collecting, and I don’t really like those in any games. They particularly shouldn’t be a focal point in a metroidvania, where exploration needs to be consistently rewarded.
Most of the boss fights felt well balanced and appropriately scaled. Here the game feels like it knows what it’s doing. Assuming you upgraded appropriately for combat, you likely won’t face too many issues. Again, the balance feels right: I never had any of those “f**k you game” moments that I sometimes experience.
Now familiar viewers will note that I have not touched on story and I’m all about that. That’s because I have no f**king clue what Shinsekai is about. Often things just seem to happen without explanation and never show up again. Ice invades the diver’s home, destroys it, and seems to be growing at a rapid pace. But, oh, wait, it doesn’t leave the first area and never appears again? So… why was it there? Oh, because we needed to start the “plot” for some reason?
The “plot” is Super Metroid’s, pretty much. Your diver needs to get to a specific area because a drone they found suggested it (this literally appears to be the only motivation I can find). There may possibly be other “humans” (not clarified) there, but we don’t know. They opted to tell this entire story without speech, dialogue, or really many hints. There are sometimes pictographs that hint that this is some kind of human colony beneath the waves because something vague happened above.
Again, they just want you to explore their pretty underwater world in the correct order to find the three keys to unlock the last area.
Obviously I had some issues with this game. But I also finished it in two days over a weekend, dedicating an awful lot of time to playing it while I did. There’s something about the exploration that feels unique and different. They definitely tried something new here. And the raw gameplay is intriguing, once you get used to the controls and movement. Not a perfect game, but if you like exploration and/or metroidvanias, perhaps one worth checking out.
6 slightly above average here, with some elements that may bump it up to about a 7 or so for some players.