Under The Waves is a narrative-driven adventure game developed by Parallel Studio and published by Quantic Dreams. It launched on Xbox, PlayStation and PC on August 29 and centres around main character Stan Moray who is a professional diver stationed in the North Sea. Stan works in the underwater life station alone and is left with his thoughts whilst struggling to overcome a life-changing loss. As time goes on, the isolation and his own thoughts get to him as he struggles to balance work for the corporation and dealing with his grief, as an impending storm threatens the stability of the station.
The graphics of Under The Waves are the first thing that drew me to the game. I have a vast respect for and fear of the deep ocean. We are thrust right into the deep underwater caverns with sharks, whales, turtles, and other sea life swimming around. I was apprehensive about getting out of the submarine near a school of sharks, but they were more scared of me than I was of them. It was amazing that as I went deeper into the water, the darker it got as less light from the sun penetrates the water, and this was well animated in the game. The amazing atmospheric soundtrack did well to calm and immerse me into the surroundings. We also see the effect of mining operations in polluting the water ways, as well as plane and shipwrecks on the sea floor, in addition to containers fallen overboard and their contents left to rot on the sandy bottom.
By manning a submersible craft named moon, Stan gets to work on his daily tasks allocated to him by radio operator Tim who is behind a desk in an administration office. We only hear Tim’s voice, and the relationship between the two men is an equal balance of a concern and respect in their working relationship where Tim issues the orders and Stan carries them out. Though often the eyes on the ground are better than those behind a desk miles away. Stan also discovers the people doing the job before him took shortcuts that become costly ones over the duration of the game.
An underlying message spread through posters within the station and Stan’s own comments as he picked up metal, plastic and other objects floating around is that of conservation. Where mankind and the progress of technology has moved ahead in leaps and bounds, there’s always a cost and often it’s an environmental one. As we swim around caves, wrecks, and mining facilities, we see oil spewing every which way. Thankfully there is a heap of marine life still swimming around these areas, but there is visual effect of oil stains on the sea floor, dissipating into the surrounding area. These build to piles of blockages you can remove later once you craft upgrades for moon.
Collecting plastic, metal, algae, and crafting blueprints allows Stan to craft necessities like batteries, repair kits, mines, and oxygen tubes. He can also craft decorations for his station and other collectible items. However, you need to be mindful that you have enough resources to craft plenty of oxygen tubes as once you start a mission, you may not find stores of oxygen tubes so must rely on what you take in with you. Twice I died from asphyxiation because I was on my last oxygen reserve and panicked, trying to turn around and get back to the moon, running out of oxygen. After reloading and trying again, it turned out I shouldn’t have panicked and kept pushing forward as an oxygen tube was eventually found, but that sense of panic of running out of oxygen was real.
You monitor Stan’s oxygen to the left of the interface and when you have two bars left it prompts you that it’s running out. At this point the camera starts to sway as Stan begins to lose consciousness and this becomes really disorienting. I found the camera would bob around behind the moon craft making it sometimes difficult to navigate tight caverns, and I questioned why it was designed to be swaying around. I assume it’s due to the ocean currents, but I wonder if anyone prone to motion sickness would be affected by this. Thankfully it didn’t affect me, it was just slightly annoying to fight against when moving.
There are some intense moments for Stan in Under The Waves where he must try to release pressure valves or repair something before it explodes, and these create tense moments as you try to swim and move Stan around the scene. There were times where it was difficult to know which objective to head to next, so scanning with the right button helped place a temporary beacon to head to. Another difficult aspect of the controls was trying to swim directly up or down in a confined space. I ended up having to swim in circles as I couldn’t just make him swim vertically. Otherwise in open spaces it was easy to control Stan.
I liked the fact we had a camera and could take some awesome scenic shots, but you also have side quests to take photos of specific species of animals. This was a fun challenge to find them, particularly the whales. The sounds of their calls penetrated far into the depths around these waters, but your field of vision only goes so far. Scanning helped me find their outlines in the misty waters, but I had issues recording photos of the octopus. I saw one twice and got up real close to make sure it was clear in the photos, but it didn’t tick off progress in the quest log which was frustrating.
I can’t spoil anything about what happens to Stan aside from it centering around how he is dealing with his grief. Some strange events happen that you initially can understand due to the circumstances, but the isolation and depths he’s working in contribute to playing tricks in his mind as he spirals down a path that only he can control, if he is willing. The tasks he had to complete for the company, mixed with the threats he faced struck a good balance of exploration versus problem solving. There are two endings you can choose, both heart wrenching in their own way and, coupled with the music, got a few tears from this over 40 Dad of two daughters.
Overall, Under The Waves is an intriguing mix of great storytelling and engaging gameplay, wrapped in amazing visuals and an atmospheric soundtrack. The voice acting is well done, conveying urgency and emotion where needed. There were some niggling issues with the bobbing camera and difficulty swimming vertically up or down, but otherwise the game had me hooked from start to finish.