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Although it’s generally known for a specific type of game, Quantic Dream is keen to make sure its new indie label Spotlight isn’t similarly typecast.
Under the Waves is the first of the French publishers’ indie titles to see a release, and while it’s still very much a narrative-driven experience, it’s clearly different to the type of game you would typically expect from Quantic’s internal team.
The work of fellow French developer Parallel Studio, Under the Waves puts you in the role of Stan, a professional deep sea diver working for an oil company from an underwater base.
Stan has suffered a horrendous incident in his life – to say more would spoil things – and has decided that an extended period of self-imposed solitude will help him get away from it all (quite literally) and come to terms with what’s happened.
Naturally, it wouldn’t be much of a game if Stan finds the peace he seeks without incident, and so hallucinations, nightmares and other strange goings-on are to be expected.
The general structure of Under the Waves sees players controlling Stan over a set number of days. This involves waking up in the morning, having a radio chat with his employer and getting his tasks for the day, which at first involve maintenance work on the company’s various underwater constructions.
The game does a good job of portraying the isolation of being alone underwater. Stan is able to explore the water and its surrounding caves in Moon, his small one-man submarine, but is otherwise completely on his own.
The only other humans seen in the game are a reporter on TV and a handful of scenes near the end of the game (which, again, we won’t go into) – otherwise the only other interactions Stan has are infrequent chats with his wife, who remains at home while he’s off on his period of isolation.
There’s a fairly linear path through the game, as each mission develops the plot further, but there’s also scope for some side-quests dotted around here and there, which encourage further exploration and even the occasional photography assignment. These are completely optional, and it’s possible to complete the game without straying off the set course once or taking a single photo.
In terms of the main missions, Under the Waves walks a line between guiding the player and making them figure things out for themselves. While you’ll initially be shown where your next location is on your map, more often than not when you get there, you encounter an issue – maybe the entrance is blocked, maybe an item is needed – and from that point, it’s up to the player to figure out the next step.
The solution is never a million miles away, but if you’re the sort of player who prefers the way many modern games adapt to such ‘unexpected’ changes of plan and tell you where to go instead, you may initially struggle with being left on your own at times. But then, of course, being left on your own is the whole point of the game.
Despite the occasionally distressing subject matter of the plot, Under the Waves is generally quite relaxing. The nature of the setting means most things are carried out at a relatively slow pace – Stan can only swim so fast, after all – and there are rarely any threats to the player.
Sharks swim around you but never attack, dangerous ‘it’s gonna blow’ set-pieces never actually blow, and the only main way it’s possible to die is to run out of oxygen, which shouldn’t happen if you keep a supply of oxygen sticks (which are plentiful, and can be crafted if you somehow run out). This is a game with a story to tell, and it wants to make sure you reach the end of it.
The game’s laidback nature is accentuated by its incredible soundtrack by Nicolas Bredin. The whole thing’s already on Spotify, and we’ve been listening to it on loop since we finished the game – not only does it know exactly when to evoke wonder and when to tug on the heartstrings, but it’s also wonderfully ambient music in its own right.
“The game’s laidback nature is accentuated by its incredible soundtrack by Nicolas Bredin. The whole thing’s already on Spotify and we’ve been listening to it on loop since we finished the game.”
Other elements of the game may prove more divisive, but much of this will depend on taste. We were extremely distracted by the voice acting, due to Stan’s tendency… to pause at… dramatic moments with nearly every line of dialogue.
The lip-syncing isn’t remotely close to the dialogue, either. While this is understandable, given the game’s native language is French, it’s rather extreme – almost every time we see a close-up of Stan during conversations, his mouth will continue to move long after he’s stopped talking. This, coupled with the rather low-quality character models, frequently broke the immersion for us.
It’s a testament to Under the Waves, then, that despite our issues with the dialogue and the character design, we still found ourselves blubbering like babies as the end credits rolled. This game still has the power to affect you profoundly. There is subject matter in this game that would make it extremely difficult for some people to play.
Something less distressing but still troublesome is the game’s performance. We encountered numerous bugs in the PS5 version, from music stopping abruptly to dialogue looping over and over, but while we’ve been assured that some of the more egregious issues – particularly the crazy amount of screen-tearing in the hub section – will be addressed in an upcoming patch, it’s worth mentioning them nevertheless. One in particular is currently preventing us from seeing an alternate ending, meaning we may have to play through the whole game again to see it.
The thing is, we probably will anyway. As a reasonably brief adventure – we beat it in just under eight hours, but that was without doing any side-quests or exploring for collectibles, so expect anything up to 15 in total – this is a game we can see ourselves coming back to again, once we get over that ending.
Like the ocean floor itself, Under the Waves has plenty of rough edges. But, it also has a beauty that – should you choose to dive in – will stay with you for a long time.
Under the Waves is an emotional adventure that handles distressing subject matter in a touching way. There are some issues with the execution, but the overall experience is a memorable one.
- Beautifully atmospheric environments
- The soundtrack is an ambient joy
- A hard-hitting plot that will stick with you
- Gives players the freedom to find solutions themselves
- Suffers from numerous gameplay and audio bugs
- Stan's constant dramatic dialogue pauses are distracting