The underwater world of depression: a review of Under the Waves, an adventure game about a man's life at the bottom of the North Sea

By: Vladyslav Nuzhnov | 10.09.2023, 14:52

Under the Waves is a story-driven adventure game by French indie studio Parallel. The story tells of a man named Stan, who is trying to survive the loss of his wife while working as a lone diver in the North Sea. During this adventure, we will have to explore a part of the underwater world, save it on our own, admire the deep landscapes and understand ourselves in order to find the strength not to exist, but to live. The game is more meditative, so don't expect shootouts, battles or anything else like that. The game focuses on the human story, its problems, and the underwater world. A special feature of the game is that it was created together with the Surfrider Foundation Europe, a non-profit association responsible for protecting the oceans. SFE left objects and notes in the game that tell interesting facts about the underwater world and why it needs to be preserved. And thanks to this, Under the Waves is one of the few games that skilfully conveys the importance of environmental conservation. Therefore, this game can be partially considered educational. However, it is not without its drawbacks. Most of all, the game suffers from annoying bugs that prevent you from fully enjoying the game. So, to understand whether it is worth buying the game, gg editorial team will tell you about all the main points of Under the Waves that you should know.

5 Reasons to Buy Under the Waves:

  • You miss underwater scuba diving
  • You've seen all the films by Jacques-Yves Cousteau
  • You prefer casual gameplay
  • The game skilfully describes the ocean and its problems
  • Picturesque visuals that will make you take dozens of screenshots

2 Reasons Not to Buy Under the Waves:

  • The presence of bugs on release
  • Meditative games are just not for you

Quick Menu:

Saving Your Own Life by Exploring the Underwater World

The story of the game resembles a one-man theatre. Stan finds himself completely alone in the deep and mysterious underwater world, which is now his only salvation. On the surface, he has experienced a serious tragedy and now it's up to him to overcome it or remain alone, suffering for the rest of his life. The only one who will be in constant contact with us is Tim, Stan's friend, who tells him what to do on the radio and can discuss everyday things. Gamers might have already seen something similar in Firewatch, but in Under the Waves, you shouldn't expect such chemistry between the characters, they just talk, although these conversations are not annoying.

The main character of this story is Stan

At the beginning, Stan is given a briefing and goes about his routine tasks: fix this, explore that, go there. But very soon, during one of these tasks, Stan finds a submarine from the Second World War. The desire to explore it is overwhelming, and Stan goes there, but finds something that reminds him of his trauma. At first, he doesn't believe what is happening. And you are also surprised by these events, because these are the first hours of the game, and you do not yet know what this guy has been through. However, very soon the situation becomes clear, and at this point you start to worry about Stan. You understand why he is so depressed and want this story to end well. There is empathy for the character, and this is very important in story-based games.

After every working day, Stan has strange nightmares that haunt him

Later on, it becomes clear that Stan has a wife, Emma, but their family life is so terrible now that the man has run away under the water. And these conversations are very emotional. You understand that something has happened, something has happened between them, but neither of them says it directly. You can feel that Emma and Stan love each other, but psychological barriers do not give them the strength to overcome all this and live happily ever after. Although I have to thank the authors. At the end of the game, all your questions are answered. You finish this journey with a full understanding of the whole situation.

In addition to the problems of his own life, Stan will also have to uncover the secrets of UniTech, the corporation he works for, which has built a full-fledged infrastructure in the ocean, but not with good intentions

Overall, the story turned out to be good. It will definitely evoke different feelings in emotional gamers. Some will feel sad, some will feel funny, some will feel a sense of mystery, some may even shed a tear. And making this game meditative is a good decision. A person going through such an experience is unlikely to do fun things. His life is mundane, so in Under the Waves we will often and slowly do mundane things, though it is much more interesting to do them in the North Sea. The only thing is that the game's introduction was not interesting, so not much can be said about it. The main thing is to overcome the first hour of the game, and then Under the Waves opens up to the maximum.

Underwater and Informative World of the Game

It is immediately noticeable that the game world was actively worked on. It feels alive. Fish, octopuses, sharks, whales, jellyfish and other marine life swim everywhere. And while there are hundreds of small fish, you won't see many whales, which also creates a certain realism. There are also reefs, caves, and more, so that you don't just swim in a straight line, but can dive deeper somewhere, manoeuvre somewhere. This also creates the feeling that you are not on a training ground.

I also really liked how you can find objects that "came" here from the surface. As you sail along, you can see old helicopters, cars, planes, ships and containers. And you can explore them all. If you see an aeroplane, then swim into it and examine it. Most of the "scenery" can be interacted with, and this makes you want to explore the world. There is no point in a huge ship if it just lies at the bottom. It is much more interesting to spend 3 minutes looking into each compartment. In addition, each such transport has "surprises" for the player that will often come in handy during the passage, so the desire to sail everywhere you see is even stronger.

But it wouldn't have worked so well if it weren't for the cooperation with SFE. Let me give you an example. You are sailing and you see sea mines. In Stan's logbook, in the Surfrider Foundation Europe section, there is information about these sea mines. It describes that although they no longer pose a threat, they release harmful chemicals that pollute the environment. Each such note is also accompanied by photos of the objects described. Therefore, if you are still actively reading your journal, you can learn many interesting facts about the real seas and oceans of our Earth after completing the game. In general, the game has a lot of items from the Second World War, because the events take place in the 1970s and not much time has passed since the end of the war.

1) Mines that can be found; 2,3) Information about these mines that can be read in the Stena magazine

Although the most emotional for me was when I saw how a conditional seal could swim with a plastic bottle stuck in its mouth, and you had to help it. In general, there is a lot of "human" garbage in the game: tyres, plastic, metal, and so on. This makes you want to work for an environmental organisation and collect as much rubbish as possible from the ocean. The authors coped with their social mission 100%.

Garbage thrown by people into the seas and oceans

How to Play the Game

The game is divided into 17 days. However, some days will be skipped so as not to stretch the timing for tens of hours. Every morning we start in our underwater base, which is divided into 3 main sections: Stan's room, where he has a computer, books, radio, bed and other decorative items to create a cosy atmosphere. There is also a kitchen with a TV where Stan drinks coffee every morning, and a workshop where Stan collects all the interesting sea finds, creates or improves his arsenal, and can also punch a punching bag.

All these 3 compartments are connected by a small corridor where there is a descent into the water, a radio to contact Tim, an AI assistant Mercury who will try to communicate with us and an on-board computer where we can get tasks. They are divided into two types: basic and routine (analogous to additional tasks). After receiving all the tasks and instructions from Tim, we descend from our base, and the main stage of the game begins.

1) The Wall Room; 2) The Kitchen; 3) The Workshop; 4) The Main Corridor

We have access to a certain area of the North Sea. Its size is enough to find something interesting for yourself within 6-8 hours of passing. And it would be boring to move on your own in such a terrain, so we have a bathyscaphe, which Stan called the Moon. It is very easy to operate. By pressing a special button on the gamepad or keyboard, you can manoeuvre the bathyscaphe better. This feature is used when you need to sail between narrow areas.

The map in the game

During the game day, we have complete freedom. You can even sail for two hours, and no one will rush you. As for the tasks, there is a paradox. Stan seems to be doing mundane things, but I've never fixed a radio deep underwater in any game, so these processes become interesting. And when you start to unravel the secrets of the corporation at the end, you want to play it even more.

Additional tasks are also good. Most of them are based on the long-familiar fetch-and-give scheme, but the total number of additional quests in the game is so small that they simply do not have time to get bored. And again, the game world is rarely used, and a routine task can turn into an interesting mini-adventure.

Some of the tasks are made in the style of a psychological thriller, which immerses you even more in Stan's story
In addition to the tasks, there are several other secondary activities: exploring the sunken transport (mentioned above), collecting plastic (to clean up the sea), you can just swim and look at fish, various objects and immerse yourself in the atmosphere of loneliness. Last but not least, you can open special chests containing useful and collectible items.
There are about 20 such chests in the game. Some of them are easy to find by simply looking at the map

How does Stan's Arsenal Upgrade Work?

Stan has a small but useful inventory. First and foremost, when you leave the bathyscaphe, you have a limited supply of oxygen. To replenish it, you need to use special oxygen sticks. You can find them at different sites or create them yourself in the workshop. To create one such stick, you need three algae and two plastic bottles. There are also small mines (to blow up a blocked door), a set for repairing a bathyscaphe (if you have damaged it badly) and fuel, because you can accelerate on the same bathyscaphe, and for this you need fuel, as well as several other items that will help you in your passage.

Some other things can be improved. To do this, you need to find the very chests that give you access to this feature. You can upgrade your oxygen tanks or the fuel supply of your bathyscaphe. It's not much, but it's enough for a game that takes less than 10 hours to complete. In conclusion, there are also collectibles: music cassettes, stickers, and various things from a guitar case to paintings by famous artists. All of this can be examined in more detail later at the Sten base.

We collect algae, plastic, electronics, and two types of stones to create and improve our inventory. But if you explore the world at least minimally, there will be no problems with resources. I always had a sufficient supply of oxygen, fuel, repair tools, and mines. The developers have also made a good decision here and do not "stifle" you by collecting everything in the world. The game gives you the opportunity to enjoy yourself, not to collect 1000 stones like a vacuum cleaner, and that's very good. And another important detail is that the game is casual, so our inventory has no limit on the items and resources collected.

The workbench where Stan can create items or improve them

Overall, the gameplay is also good. It's very pleasant to drive the bathyscaphe, you don't need to collect a lot of resources, there are interesting places to look around, and the overall exploration process is very well implemented.

If you're tired of shooters and other action games and just want to swim and discover something new (there aren't many games about oceans and seas), Under the Waves is worth considering. And most of the new releases in the industry now cost $70, and this game is only $30.

Optimisation, Visuals, and Audio

There are some problems with the game's optimisation, and it would be better to release it a week later to fix everything. And it's not about the loss of frames, there's nothing wrong with that, it's about bugs. Some bugs are minor, and some are very annoying. A bug that confused me from time to time is that the activities I completed remain on the map. Some chests and areas with plastic remained on the map until the end of the passage, although I had been there a long time ago and collected everything. There was also a bug during one story mission when I had to lower 5 levers. The last lever was already lowered, but the game showed that I had lowered 4. As it turned out, there was another lever at the end of the location, and I had to lower it, although the mini-map pointed to a completely different one.

There was another terrible bug. I don't know if it's on other platforms, but on PlayStation 5, every couple of minutes, the message "something is wrong with your saves" would appear on the screen. I clicked "OK", continued playing, a few minutes passed and the same error appeared again. I was beginning to think that I had lost all my saves, so I restarted the game, but they were all there, and the game kept showing that something was wrong with them. It was very, very annoying, sometimes it spoiled the impression of the game, especially in the moments when you have to manoeuvre the bathyscaphe carefully. Fortunately, this notification was no longer present in the last two hours of the game. But this needs to be fixed as soon as possible, because I played Under the Waves after the release, and all these bugs are still in the game.

Notifications that were constantly annoying and did not always allow you to enjoy the game

The Game's Visuals Show the Beauty of the North Sea

Visuals are one of the best aspects of Under the Waves. The graphics resemble a 3D cartoon, but it is as cinematic as possible. This feeling is created thanks to several simple but effective solutions. First, the game allows you to switch off the interface completely with one button. At the end of the game, when I was already well orientated, I almost always switched it off and enjoyed the scenery of the underwater world, where no element on the screen distracts. The game also has a grainy effect and small black stripes at the top and bottom, which always add to the atmosphere and that cinematic feel.

And the North Sea itself is very beautiful. It is both fascinating and frightening with its unknown depth. In Under the Waves, you just get on a bathyscaphe, sail in an unknown direction, enjoy this picture, and that's all you need now. Add to this the diversity of industrial facilities, marine life, reefs, corals, vegetation, and you have one of the most beautiful games about the underwater world.

Incredible underwater visuals of Under the Waves

Audio Enhances the Loneliness Atmosphere

When you swim, there is no music in the background. Only the muffled sound of the sea can be heard in the bathyscaphe, which describes Stan's emotions. If he's not doing anything serious, all he hears are his thoughts, which prevent him from living fully. I can't say that this effect is depressing, but sometimes the orphans stood out on my skin.

However, there is music in the game. It usually sounds in the scenes. The compositions are different: calm, dramatic, melancholic, epic. Each sounds at the right time and further enhances the atmosphere of the adventure. And you can even play the guitar while at the base. It reminded me of The Last of Us Part II, which had a similar mechanic.

What We didn't Like

The first disadvantage (if you don't count the bugs) is related to Stan's facial animation. Against the backdrop of the game's beautiful visuals, his face during a conversation looks like it was created by a first-year student in one evening. His lips move strangely and are almost never synchronised with his conversations. That is, first he speaks, the line ends, and only then do his lips start moving. Throughout the game, we see only Stan and there are not many scenes where we can see his face in close-up. Couldn't they have spent a little more time and made these animations at a decent level?

The second disadvantage is the overlong ending. Stan's last day at sea lasts a very long time. That's even taking into account the fact that I didn't do any other activities, but only completed the final task. I would shorten the final act by 20 minutes. The game would not lose much from this, and the player would have more emotions, which would make the ending even better.

Most of the time in the final task, we do the same routine things. It gets a little boring at the 8th hour, but the last 20 minutes of the game saves the day

3 Things to Know about Under the Waves

  • The game captures the seascapes of the North Sea
  • Cooperation with SFE helped gamers to get acquainted with the problems of real seas and oceans
  • Developers failed to fix all the bugs before the release
Under the Waves
Genre. Narrative-driven adventure
Platforms. PlayStation 4/5, Xbox Series, Xbox One, PC
Number of players Single-player
Developer Parallel Studio
Publisher Quantic Dream
Time to complete 6-9 hours
Release date 29th of August 2023

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The editorial team would like to thank the publisher Quantic Dream for kindly providing the game for review