With the release of Shadow Complex on Xbox Live Arcade last August the genre created (and in the opinion of some, perfected) by Nintendo's Metroid series was revived. In the wake of that game's success, 3G Studios brings us The Deep [App Store], a Metroid-inspired game with a twist; players are thrust into the wet suit of a scuba diver exploring the depths of the oceans.
The Deep opens with the tale of a vacationing scuba diver on a tropical island. Some guy who is permanently stuck in the Captain Morgan pose briefs players with a text-based tutorial, and the scuba diver (who you'll come to find is quite sarcastic) is driven towards a local store where an eccentric store owner awaits with the first quest. Thus begins a pattern that will become quite familiar to players as they progress; there are three different islands in The Deep, and each one contains a single villager and a very unique shop owner, each of whom tout some very strange demands in quest form.
After accepting a quest, players can leave an island and drop out to a large map, where all of the levels that have been unlocked are selectable. Upon selecting a level, the actual gameplay starts and the exploration, light puzzle solving, and Metroid references can begin. Like Metroid, The Deep is all about exploring environments and finding important items that allow access to other parts of the map or give unique abilities to the main character. A large red boulder, for instance, can't be destroyed until a player has collected the level three bomb upgrades, so plenty of secrets are saved for second or even third runs through the many levels and areas in the game.
The scuba diver is controlled via a virtual thumbstick when using the default control scheme, and this works perfectly, unlike the alternative touch-based option. While there are numerous threats to the diver in the form of sharks, deadly swordfish, and giant alien brains (the game gets pretty crazy towards the end), there is no health meter to be monitored during play. Instead, the diver's air tank steadily runs out of air, which can be easily refilled by returning to the surface. Taking damage from the underwater creatures will take off precious seconds from the total timer, so avoiding them is a must if any progress is to be made, as dying will reset all of the progress in a level to the moment the diver entered it last.
In a particularly wise design decision by the developers, each level works as a sort of hub for about three separate areas, each of which is its own contained puzzle. In this way players can generally make it through one area, collect an important item, return to the surface, and then immediately head for the next in-level area. This gives the game a nice pace and makes for a great sense of urgency at all times, as a few mistakes in an area means that the diver will need to be especially quick in order to finish collecting all of the goodies in an area and make it out alive.
The various shops on the three islands offer tons of upgrades which can be purchased with the treasure that can be found so abundantly throughout The Deep's levels. Substantial oxygen tank upgrades, increases in swimming speed, better flashlights for those deeper, dark areas, and better suits to keep the diver from taking much damage from enemy encounters all add up to make a nice reward for finishing a level, as well as provide big incentive to explore areas and collect more gold.
There's something inherently fun about upgrading a character to make them faster or stronger for second runs through levels; I'm sure fans of Hook Champ will attest to this. The Deep successfully delivers that feeling of fun, all the while providing tons of enticing reasons to play more, like the allure of extra hidden gold or sidequests that span multiple levels.
Worthy of special note is the humorous, self-referential dialogue between the characters from the islands and the scuba diver. I laughed out loud on more than one occasion at the well-written quips from the island natives, and I feel that they give the game an extra layer of personality. While no text in the game is voiced, the music is pretty good (although it can be hit or miss at times), but it can't match up with the quality of the art, which is made all the more appealing by the high quality of the animation, especially in regards to the diver.
The Deep is not without fault, although its issues are not major. A little variation in some of the puzzles (which almost exclusively deal with flipping different colored switches to open doors) would have been nice, and I really wish that there was a way to check an individual level's stats to see if any of the hidden collectibles haven't been collected, but these are very small issues when one considers the fact that the game is an absolute blast to play. I do have one strong suggestion for the developers, and that's to change the design of some of the shops (the ones that require you to scroll right a really long ways for no real reason to get to the shop owner). That's just annoying.
All of my complaints against The Deep are absolutely trivial when I look back and consider the amount of fun that I derived from playing through the game. Unique level designs, the pleasant art, and that addictive, upgrade-focused exploratory gameplay kept me captive for hours. The comparison might be a slight stretch due to the fact that the levels are in no way interconnected, but I feel that fans of great games like Super Metroid or Shadow Complex will absolutely fall in love with this game. This is a hidden gem that should not be kept a secret.
App Store Link: The Deep, $3.99