Under The Waves is the first game to be released under Quantic Dream’s new publishing label Spotlight, and it’s also the debut title for Parallel Studio. This underwater adventure is a game that has an interesting concept and the developer has done a good enough job in realizing its vision, but a few inconsistencies mar the game’s strengths down by a significant margin – which is a shame because it could have very well turned out to be one of the biggest surprise hits of the year.
Under The Waves puts you in the shoes of Stanley, who works as a professional underwater operative for the UniTrench mining facility. Your first day on the job starts out simple as you are taken on routine tasks by your manager Tim, but the narrative soon spins into something more complex as Stan starts to experience strange occurrences and things quickly spiral out of control from there.
Stan is a well-written protagonist with a fleshed-out backstory, and the developers do a great job of revealing his inner secrets layer by layer as you would peel an onion. We get to know that Stan took this job as a coping mechanism to get over an irreparable loss (that I can’t obviously talk about in this review) and that his actions have left his relationship with his wife Emma in ruins.
"Stan is a well-written protagonist with a fleshed-out backstory, and the developers do a great job of revealing his inner secrets layer by layer as you would peel an onion."
The writing is quality stuff, and it’s all carried out really well by the voice actors. You can hear the crackling of Stan’s voice when he is confronted about his past, and there’s also a hint of exhaustion in his voice which helps in achieving a tone that seems fitting for such a cynical character. While the game is largely centered around the protagonist himself, the supporting cast also does justice to the material that’s provided to them.
Story sequences are also directed with a lot of care and attention to detail. The camera juts in close to Stan to show his vulnerable mental state, and it might pan out for a wide shot which makes Stan look really tiny in the grand scheme of things. The camera changes the angle pretty frequently during cutscenes to help establish the right mood for this adventure and add a dash of personality to the storytelling. But what mars these merits down is a lack of synchronization between the audio and video. Stan would awkwardly open and close his mouth during conversations without matching his voice lines, which can definitely feel weird in comparison to the otherwise great presentation of the story.
As for the story itself, Under The Waves tries to create a narrative that not only tells the story of Stanley and his adventures underwater but also serves as an awareness campaign for the ill effects of exploiting the ocean for natural resources. While that is a novel pursuit on its own, the story did tend to lean towards environmental awareness more and Stan’s plot of overcoming his grief ends up feeling somewhat underdeveloped as a result. There are some strong emotional moments in the closing chapters of the game, but the story does leave something to be desired nevertheless.
"Story sequences are also directed with a lot of care and attention to detail. The camera juts in close to Stan to show his vulnerable mental state, and it might pan out for a wide shot which makes Stan look really tiny in the grand scheme of things. "
Moving over to the gameplay side of things, Under the Waves’ moment-to-moment gameplay revolves around exploring the deep seas and completing tasks for your company. You will be spending the entirety of the game underwater, so your primary mode of traversal is swimming and using your mini-submarine to travel longer distances. Making underwater traversal a satisfying mechanic is a tough task, and while Under The Waves’ execution is functional – it does falter in comparison to contemporaries like Subnautica. The movement here feels sluggish, and that makes traveling from point A to point B a chore with little in the name of enjoyment.
Each day starts with Stan waking up and getting a brief on his daily tasks while sipping his morning coffee in his cozy life module. There’s a crafting machine that allows you to combine resources like algae, plastic, and coal to create equipment like oxygen sticks, fuel tanks, and repair kits which might come in handy when you’re carrying out your missions. Once you make all the necessary preparations, it’s off to the waters and the tasks.
The missions on offer range from completing simple tasks like harvesting algae to recalibrating generators to larger operations where you have to explore large facilities in an effort to solve much larger problems. There are no combat sequences, and the challenge comes from solving puzzles and managing your oxygen supply.
"Of course, not every game is supposed to be challenging and because Under The Waves is a largely story-driven adventure – it’s not fair to hold such a grudge against it. "
And I’m using the word “challenge” in a very lenient fashion, since the puzzles that you encounter are rarely brain tickling and there’s a healthy amount of oxygen stick dispensers on the mission-critical path which makes getting through any mission a cakewalk. Whatever little progress blockades I encountered mostly stemmed from not being able to crack a puzzle due to low environmental visibility. Of course, not every game is supposed to be challenging and because Under The Waves is a largely story-driven adventure – it’s not fair to hold such a grudge against it.
Apart from tackling the main missions, you are free to explore a limited sub-section of the ocean which is peppered with shipwrecks and caves. Going off the beaten path to explore these areas will net you important resources, crafting blueprints for upgrades to your oxygen capacity, and collectibles to adorn your life pod – but because those rewards didn’t feel essential, I largely avoided exploring these additional areas.
Under The Waves might not impress with its raw graphical fidelity, but Parallel Studio has done a great job when it comes to the art direction. The deep sea is incredibly dark and looks appropriately scary, and the constantly flickering camera helps in portraying Stan’s deranged mental state. The facilities that you explore also have tons of props littered throughout, which helps in making it all believable. There are some genuinely beautiful and visually evocative sequences spread throughout the story, but I wouldn’t be spoiling your experience by revealing it all here.
"The deep sea is incredibly dark and looks appropriately scary, and the constantly flickering camera helps in portraying Stan’s deranged mental state."
It took me just over 6 hours to roll the credits on the game, and you could spend an additional hour or two exploring the world and checking off the trophies – so Under The Waves isn’t a particularly lengthy game. And that generally works in favor of the game, because it doesn’t have any compelling gameplay hooks or mechanics that would be able to bear the weight of a longer game.
All in all, Under The Waves tells an emotionally packed narrative about overcoming grief and the importance of underwater wildlife preservation. While the story beats may not always hit the mark, it’s a narrative that’s well worth seeing through to the end. The gameplay doesn’t break any new ground in terms of mechanics or interesting features, but it works well for the rather short duration of the adventure. Under The Waves is a great first step for Parallel Studio, and might be worth a try if this review manages to pique your interest – but also know that you wouldn’t be missing out on much if you end up skipping this one.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Great writing and voice acting; well-directed cutscenes with great art direction; the length of the game is appropriate for its simplistic mechanics.
Audio and video sync issues; heavy movement mechanics; puzzles could have been better.