In the pantheon of video game proverbs, two things stereotypically ring true for many players: Metroidvania titles are amazing, and water levels are just the worst. So when I learned that Shinsekai: Into the Depths is a Metroidvania game based entirely underwater, I knew I had to try it out on principle. Now, after a seven and a half-hour playthrough, I leave the game understanding what was once uncharted territory, both in my perspective of the genre and the remains of a once prosperous, deep-sea civilization.
From the outset, Shinsekai immediately puts you at the mercy of the depths. The opening sequence sees your nameless character’s nook ravaged by a rapidly expanding wall of ice. From there, the ambiguous and lonely journey to find what’s next begins. These early stages aren’t just reserved for the typical control and interface tutorials, they also play a huge role in adapting the player to the game’s physics and traversal. This is where Shinsekai’s unflinching commitment to its concept begins.
The playable character’s movements are floaty and slow but made much faster and somewhat erratic via a strapped-on jet pack. However, the jet pack’s usage requires careful consideration on the player’s part, as initiating it will deplete your air supply (essentially, your health bar). Because of this, exploration instantly feels unique compared to Shinsekai’s contemporaries. It forces you not only to strategize where you’ll go next but in nature and speed in which you will get there. Another factor that plays a role in that sense of calculation are save points and intermittent bubble streams that can replenish your oxygen levels. It’s up to you to consistently view your minimap and gauge your current location in contrast with various resource markers. This way, you’ll know whether you’re going to make the trip, or if you need to plan a more efficient route.
On the other hand, the player can also use their attached headlamp or sonar capabilities to find a range of minerals embedded in the seafloor. These items are used to craft additional oxygen, boost stamina for climbing, reload ammo and much more. Most importantly, some resource pockets contain rarer and more valuable materials than others, and these are often used to upgrade your scuba suit, allowing you to venture deeper. This is the fundamental pattern of progression in Shinsekai.
In tandem, these basic components of gameplay come together in a way that enhances the atmosphere of the game. With virtually every movement involving some sort of risk and thoughtful planning, your sense of vulnerability and uncertainty is amplified, making your lonely venture through the underwater abyss that much more daunting. The fact that Shinsekai doubles down on the aquatic aesthetic and rules of this unfurling world pairs great with the intimate Metroidvania format. Unfortunately, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention which features suffered at the hands of these design philosophies.
Deep but unpolished
As the unmarked world slowly reveals itself around you, you learn more and more about a human civilization that once ruled the depths; inhabitants that look just like your playable character. This history is found through a number of terminals you’ll discover, each one using nothing but images and iconography to depict significant events or explain key concepts. While it’s hard to encompass through words, the developers certainly crafted a compelling style, imagery and culture that increases the sense of immersion.
However, I felt that applying some of these designs to the main menus of Shinsekai was a mistake. While this was not an issue for navigation, other subsections such as inventory and upgrading were made needlessly vague and foreign. If I had to estimate, it took me nearly two hours to fully understand which materials correlated with each craftable item or upgrade. I would often find myself blindly opting into upgrades or item crafting, crossing my fingers and hoping that what I chose to use my hard-earned materials would be useful to me. Not using the written word or any blatant explanation for storytelling was a welcome choice for Shinsekai. But on the other hand, making a similar choice for the user interface is one that was just unnecessary and distracting.
Aside from that, what is by far the biggest victim of Shinsekai’s design is combat. While the aforementioned physics and movement style makes perfect sense in context, its execution during fight sequences leads to, at best, incredibly simple encounters and, at worst, frustratingly clunky and seemingly unbalanced bouts. In one-on-one situations, the hostile marine life will usually dart towards you, allowing for mindless spamming of the melee attack button, often resulting in an instant kill and leaving you completely unscathed. Conversely, some animation choices, such as the ones for getting up from a fall or finishing a climb, are comically slow. Without any way to speed these up and without temporary immunity, you’ll often find yourself helpless as even the least imposing enemies are quick to capitalize. On most occasions, I didn’t receive damage from enemies from direct interaction. Instead, if I fell too far and suffered impact damage, a nearby enemy would strike while I had to wait for my inputs to have any effect. In these moments, I found myself dying every now and then without having any proper interaction with a foe. In one particular boss fight towards the end, it felt as if I was a rag doll stripped of any agency. Admittedly, falling down in the first place ended up being entirely my fault, but that doesn’t mean it should sometimes result in a game over screen before a challenge even starts. Besides, the rest of the game’s low difficulty level doesn’t seem consistent with these moments, and they don’t play out like intentional, punishing challenges. They instead play out like the combat was an afterthought compared to the other facets of Shinsekai.
In its defence, the variety of ranged combat options were pleasant. Different projectiles offered varied approaches to face-offs, while also playing a role in some physical puzzle solving. I do have some other nitpicks about Shinsekai, but they’re just that: nitpicks. With combat and user interface choices being the only major problems worth mentioning, other gripes seem trivial when discussing an otherwise decent adventure game.
There are often certain expectations that come with Metroidvania games. Most of these are met in Shinsekai, with some subtle changes that make for fairly refreshing changeups. Firstly, navigation felt pretty standard: a map that slowly reveals its contents as you traverse through, with progression determined by unlocking new abilities and key equipment. The only major difference here was a decrease in lengthy backtracking. In my standard playthrough, I found venturing back to previous regions in the world map was a very rare occurrence, less so than other titles in the same vein.
Collectibles were also plentiful. While I didn’t go out of my way to gather every single one, Shinsekai still rewarded me for my curiosity. Personal hunches and gut instincts were more often than not met with nice payoffs, whether that was valuable materials, a collectible or even spotting of a rare marine species (these were trackable encounters, sort of playing out as collectibles in their own right).
Shinsekai: Into the Depths is a pleasant shakeup in adventure game aesthetics. The bold move to carry an entire adventure like this underwater is one I highly respect. While I believe the Nintendo Switch offers far superior Metroidvania options in its catalogue, Shinsekai offers a solid getaway from the surge of vast AAA titles being thrown our way right now. If you manage to catch it on a notable sale, it’s well worth a long single-sitting session or breezy weekend escape.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]