Water and spirituality are paired together thematically so often it’s practically a cliche. Soul Searching attempts to grab this structure and add something a little new. It’s minimalistic, interesting and subtly incredibly dark when it wants to be. It won’t be a game that everyone will like and it might make you feel a little uncomfortable, but it certainly won’t be something you’ll forget.
Soul Searching is a rather fascinating experience. At its heart, it is a rather simple survival game. You must attempt to leave your village on a “soul searching” quest. Your village is just a handful of people in huts. They live a very simplistic life without electricity or any modern amenities. All they know is their island in the middle of a vast ocean. You must be very brave or very stupid to wish for something more.
You grab your boat, a stockpile of food and water and push off the island to a larger world. The world itself is a total mystery. No one on your island knows much about it. You hear whispers about dragons and adventure – but surely that’s just a rumour, right?
As you make your way to the first island, the base mechanics of the game start to show themselves. Your boat isn’t heavily advanced, and you must physically row to get it going. This is done by placing your body on an appropriate part of the ship to touch the correct oar.
As well as keeping an eye on the wind you sail on and the direction you take, you must keep an eye on three central bars: your hunger, thirst and sleep. Unlike most survival games, Soul Searching gives practically no information prior to starting. You learn the controls and then must take the journey for yourself.
There is a wonderfully dark and desperate nature that comes out when playing Soul Searching. At my darkest moment, I was left with very little food and water and my map had been misplaced. I was drifting endlessly in the ocean. My saviour came in a sickening way. At the top of the screen, a loose pile of wood was making its way down. I hurried towards it before realising this is a boat. There was plenty of food and water but the man in the middle was dead. I took everything I could and found an island before it fully hit me what I had just done.
Soul Searching is full of these moments. You, as the player, judge yourself in often rather harsh ways. The narrative works wonderfully to this end. Now picked up by Nakana, the original Soul Searching back in 2017 was made by a single person and this shows. It is very personal, and by the end of my time with it I felt like I knew them in a very personal way.
This is encapsulated well in its style. Its graphics are minimalistic and pixel-based. This plays very well into even the story itself. These moments are made much more powerful with the music, something which is excellent. It is composed mostly of guitar and vocals, often offering a promising and almost mysterious soundtrack as you discover the game. At the peak of its story, the music comes together and swells to achieve one of the greatest moments in the entire game.
There are two senses of growth encapsulated throughout Soul Searching. There is the personal growth of your character and the monetary one. As you gear up to take a long trip on your boat to a far away land, you must stockpile plenty of food, water and some equipment. This is done by gathering gold. When you spy a small gold circle in the ocean, you must attempt to jump out, grab it and get back on before your oxygen runs out. This may seem harsh but the rewards are worth it.
The most obvious upgrade is your boat, and you may use a large amount of gold to get a bigger or more agile boat. Once bought, all of your items are automatically moved over. This may give you the opportunity to buy a fishing rod, another set of oars or a proper engine. The ease of getting to the final island is entirely dependent on you.
This is what makes Soul Searching’s theming work well. The majority of designs feel intentional. The art and music play into the narrative and so too does the gameplay. You realise that not only is your character exploring a vast open ocean without a clue but so are you. Where this theming falls down is in the central gameplay loop and length of the game.
The gameplay itself gets dull rather fast. The idea is interesting conceptually but there isn’t much to entice you to come back to it. The story can be beaten within an hour or two as there aren’t many islands to visit and, whilst there are other runs to complete and multiplayer to take part in, there isn’t much of a reason to come back and play it when it is finished.
Overall, Soul Searching on Nintendo Switch offers a wonderfully personal experience. It has some genuinely fascinating storytelling and theming but the base gameplay loop has not been expanded enough to justify much more time after finishing.
Release date: April 2020
Formats: Nintendo Switch (Review)
Massive thanks for the free copy: Nakana.io