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The end of the year is often a time for reflection, growth and rebirth as we all do a little soul searching before proclaiming “New Year, new me!” and other such bullshit. Well, December saw me doing some Soul Searching of another kind courtesy of Kayabros games.
Soul Searching is a top-down, pixel art, survival game where you control a lone heap of random blocks and travel from your homeland to faraway lands. Different islands have their own stories and people; however the common thread is that all inhabitants seem to be massive Derek and Debbie Downers. These are not just glass half empty people; these are smash the glass and grind it into your eyes people!
This tone and characterisation confused me and alienated me straight away.
At its core Soul Searching is a relatively gentle, simplistic survival and resource management game, making sure you have enough food, water and energy to survive your adventures. You could travel to other islands to gather resources and upgrade your boat to epic proportions, but I managed well enough in my little canoe, flailing my oars around.
This bit I enjoyed, it’s also bright and colourful and the music is delightfully jaunty. I spent entirely too long in the character creator, yes you can customise your pixel persona not that it makes any difference and I loved the adorable wub wub wub noises characters made when they spoke.
Things that completely baffled me; dragons, weird “nightmare” cut-scenes, and then the paint by numbers portrayal of mental health issues and beer-mat philosophy.
This stuff really irks me. I fully understand that developers want to create and share experiences that are deep and meaningful, but if the writing isn’t there then all you have is a collection of platitudes and pontifications that don’t really land. I may as well have been playing David Cage goes 8-bit.
I had similar issues with Drowning by Sometimes You. I get that Soul Searching is trying to deal with heavy themes like isolation, searching for meaning and direction, depression and suicidal thoughts, but it does it in such a formulaic way that I felt patronised. The writing lacked any emotional depth or nuance, it dealt in clichés and lacked any meaning. At least with Drowning I understood it was more of an interactive diary, but with Soul Searching I questioned why this was even part of the game.
From the way that other characters react and interact with you I got the sense that you were being generally admonished and accused of running away and that “soul searching” is in some way bad. This is a theme that could be better explored and be a message about self-discovery or getting out of your comfort zone but it’s such an emotionally dead story. With dragons, did I mention the dragons?
I have absolutely no idea what the dragons were about either.
I did uncover that there were nice dragons and bad dragons, but the thing that struck me most was that these dragons, and some of the islands are so beautifully done with an early Zelda charm, that I wonder why the characters themselves are abstract pixel things. I could try my hand at some of my own kindergarten philosophising here and say that this is a commentary on humanity and aren’t we all just abstract things having dark, malicious thoughts and saying wub wub wub a lot?
I’d probably be reading too much into it then.
Then there are the cut scenes. These usually happen when sleeping to recover stamina and I think are supposed to be “nightmares”. These monochromatic moments I think are there to push on whatever the narrative is supposed to be, but they generally felt like more of the same meandering while a random character spouts random nonsense.
It’s a shame, because this desire to be existentially important gets in the way of what could be a fun little survival and exploration game.
As far as survival mechanics go Soul Searching is perhaps the most forgiving. You can collect currency dotted about islands to buy rations and upgrades to your boat. Puddles of water, berries and random piles of fish are plentiful so you can replenish your stockpiles easy enough. You can also collect souls (I think). These are shimmering pixels which make little musical “Oh” noises and they strobe gently around you like disco wasps when you pick them up. For what purpose, I have absolutely no idea. When I got murdered by a dragon they all disappeared anyway.
I do feel like I need to offer a little praise to the Short Stories which are also part of the game, although I’m not sure why the developers felt the need to announce that you were playing the role of a straight male as the characters all tended to be amorphous blobs or figures.
These mini-games, which unfortunately carried on the same shallow psychology of the main game, did demonstrate a range of different and nostalgic game designs and styles. Some of them were entirely too long and tedious and the homage to Asteroids I skipped, because I’ve always been rubbish at that, but the fish level was so outstandingly Pythonesque and bonkers that I almost enjoyed it.
Unfortunately, Soul Searching was not a game for me. If you want a beautiful and thoughtful game about escape and travelling, may I suggest Far: Lone Sails or Journey.
If you want a game about exploration and narrative that has some emotional truth and impact to it, then try Gone Home.
This is a visually pleasant survival game spoilt by its desire to be profound. It feels like a game trying to be all things to all people – resource management, exploration, survival, fantastical dragon and magic stuff, but the need to be deep and meaningful and the tired and overused tropes leave me feeling cold and irritated.
TBG Score: 3/10
Platform: Steam, Nintendo
Release Date: 25/10/2019
No. of Players: 1-4
Category: Adventure, RPG, Simulation
Publisher: Qubic Games
Download link: eShop