Deeps Ones promises philosophical observations along with classic platformer action with a little bit of bullet hell thrown in. But, the bright pops of color and old-school feel quickly fall flat due to poor controls and mediocre game design.
You play as an unlucky diver who finds himself in need of some emergency submarine maintenance while traveling through the depths. Little did you know, however, that a rather large and rather angry giant squid is not particularly impressed by your presence. As your submarine is dragged down into the depths by massive tentacles, you find yourself slowly descending into the darkness. To escape the depths, you must locate your submarine. But, the oceans are filled with hungry creatures, deadly decapods, and even pirates. Your journey will not be an easy one, and, as we shall see, game design plays an unfortunate role in adding to that difficulty.
As far as visuals go, Deep Ones offers an impressive recreation of older-style pixel art that makes the game feel both vibrant and unique. Neon underwater flora and fauna add brilliant sources of light throughout. At times, providing much-needed illumination, and other times making the world appear as if it were lovingly constructed in an old version of Microsoft Paint. The visuals are in fact based upon the ZX Spectrum, a personal computer boasting a limited color display released in 1982 in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, as appealing as the visuals are, the gameplay manages to take away from much of the delight that might otherwise come from the nostalgia and colorful displays.
I grew up playing Super Mario, Mega Man, and other platformers that made the genre known for difficulty. Much of this difficulty came, in the early days, from controls that now feel laggy and somewhat slow. Jump timing required knowing exactly when to hit the button, which was always a millisecond or two before the jumping animation would actually initiate. So, to say the controls in Deep Ones feel a little too laggy and a little too slow means this isn’t a matter of difficulty as much as it is a matter of wonky controls.
Leaping from one platform to another, even after you get the timing right, always feels like you just barely make it to the ledge. Along with that, your movement always feels far too slow for the tasks required. For instance, I once had to use rising platforms made of bubbles to gain access to a ledge. The bubbles pop after a second or two, requiring you to move from one to another before they all disappear just in time to jump to the ledge. I died far more times than I should have because your jump is not only incredibly limited, but very slow despite how quickly accomplishing the task requires you to move. I eventually made it after multiple tries, but the task felt far more like a tedious requirement than a fun challenge. Learning proper timing is one thing, but struggling through slogging controls is another.
Battling enemies poses a similar challenge. You will find yourself getting hit too often due to the fact all enemies move at a higher speed than you, sometimes significantly. You do have a gun, but firing requires a long windup between shots and making any movements will cancel the firing animation. That is right, you must stand perfectly still while shooting. Jumping immediately after triggering the firing animation will cause the diver to fire while in the air, then automatically fire once you land. However, when battling swarms of enemies, this still proves largely useless.
The first boss battle pits you against a swarm of small sharks, all of whom can move at a higher rate of speed than you. This means often you will find yourself with two sharks coming at you, making it impossible for you to slowly jump over them without getting hit. Since the sharks must line up perfectly with your line of fire for you to hit them, your chances of making a hit are also limited, though the sharks themselves can attack at an angle. Later on, you will encounter pirates that somehow have pinpoint accuracy when they fire, but you, as before, have to perfectly line up your shots, stand still, and hope you don’t get hit in the meantime.
Deep Ones also suffers from glitches or just poor planning. For example, you can easily get stuck on the side of a ledge due to clipping. There are also times the internal logic of the game loses its consistency. Early on you learn that falling into a pit leads to certain death. But, suddenly, certain pits lead to the next stage. Then, pits lead to death again.
More devastatingly, the game will have cut-scenes or moments when you are being visually instructed to do something that do not pause the action of the game when they logically should. The first time I encountered this was right after the boss battle with the min sharks. A cut-scene of a giant shark headed my way ensued, following by letters on the screen instructing me to ride a seahorse. Thinking I had to wait for the scene to end, I saw the shark pass and a wave of sea horses rise to my left. Little did I know that once the shark passed and the sea horses vanished, I had missed my chance. I had to play through the boss battle AGAIN only to barely make it to the sea horses in time once the shark entered the area of the screen where I was. During a later battle with a boss pirate, another scene takes place that pauses you, but not the boss, thus leaving you vulnerable.
Deep Ones is playable. Like the older titles I mentioned above, a lot of it requires memorization and good timing. However, unlike platformers of yore, the controls themselves often create the problem, rather than serving as a proper challenge. Enemies come equipped with advanced speed and the ability to strike at an angle, both putting your creeping, slow-shooting self at a serious disadvantage. Obstacles that should only take a few tries begin to feel like a cruel punishment. The game is cheap, and perhaps worth it for some who don’t mind grinding needlessly. At least, the frequent save points and infinite lives serves to quell some of the frustration. But, in the end, there are better platforms out there for fans looking for a shot of nostalgia. Sometimes it is just best to stay out of the water.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.