Under the Waves is like an underwater Firewatch, which takes place in the waters of the North Sea. Firewatch is one of my all-time favourite indie games, so I don’t make this comparison lightly. There are many thematic and gameplay-centric similarities between the two games but Under the Waves never feels like an imitation. Under the Waves is clearly inspired by the indie classic, using those inspirations to create its own memorable story. It explores the darkest depths of the ocean and the human psyche, exploring powerful personal themes and global issues.
Under the Waves puts players in the diving suit of Stanley Moray, who works for the oil corporation, Unitrench. Stanley has taken time away from his partner Emma and taken a job that requires him to spend his days and nights underwater.
Initially, Stanley seems fine, but as the game continues, we begin to see how broken Stanley truly is. Stanley suffers from insurmountable grief, and the loneliness of his situation sends him deeper into his own mental darkness. Stanley is haunted by nightmares of his past and as the story proceeds his world begins to unravel. As a player, it becomes difficult to determine what is real and what has been created by Stanley’s own imagination.
Stanley’s story is heartbreaking, relatable, and incredibly sad as he tries to cope and survive through his emotional torment. Stanley is isolated from society, aside from the voices of his manager Tim and his partner Emma, causing further harm. The vocal performances elevate the narrative, especially Stanley, as he delivers a fantastic vocal performance throughout the story. Under the Waves delivers a fantastic narrative, which tackles mature and heartbreaking themes. Over the adventure, I found myself completely absorbed in Stanley’s gruelling and emotional journey.
Under the Waves also includes a ‘evil corporation’ troupe, dealing with the negative effects that Unitrench is having on the ocean. This narrative thread guides Stanley throughout his daily activities and main missions but is clearly overshadowed by Stanley’s personal journey. This narrative arc provides a strong message of environmental conservation but is quite predictable and less impactful than Stanley’s story. The game can be completed in around six hours, but it can take over fifteen hours to reach 100% completion.
Under the Waves is a third-person adventure with two main forms of traversal. Players get behind the wheel of a submarine and can also explore the ocean floor wearing a diving suit. Controlling Moon is responsive and fun, with an option to control the vessel from a first-person perspective. However, swimming does take some time to get accustomed to, as L2/R2 are used to ascend/descend the watery depths.
Exploring the open world of the ocean is interesting, but camera issues do occur when navigating tight corridors. The camera tends to get lost, which made traversing narrow areas such as caves or narrow tunnels frustrating. There are also light-survival elements to manage, such as oxygen levels when swimming and fuel levels when using the submarine. However, these meters are essentially inconsequential, as an abundance of oxygen sticks can be found when exploring, and players can conserve fuel by avoiding the submarine’s boost feature. Under the Waves is more focused on player progression rather than providing a challenging survival experience.
Missions in Under the Waves are quite linear, as players will solve simple puzzles, involving pulling levers and turning wheels. Fortunately, the narrative is interesting enough and missions short enough that the repetitive aspects never hindered my experience. There are also Routine Missions which ask players to complete mundane tasks, which usually provide additional moments with Stanley.
Under the Waves truly shines during the exploration of the North Sea. Finding hidden passages to sunken shipwrecks is exhilarating, and sometimes finding the entrance to these treasures is its own reward. Players can also find crafting recipes during their expeditions, which can be used to upgrade their submarine and other abilities. However, like the survival aspects, the crafting system is incredibly basic. Crafting materials are found underwater, but as many items are found in abundance, I only ever used crafting to obtain permanent upgrades.
Overall, the gameplay aspects of Under the Waves are a mixed bag. Many of the features feel underutilised or easily ignored due to the insignificant benefits they offer. But I always found discovering a new point of interest to explore incredibly satisfying and exciting.
Under the Waves is best played with headphones, allowing players to appreciate the incredible sound design. Under the Waves offers a minimalistic soundtrack, which helps heighten the tension during missions and elevate the atmosphere while exploring.
The sound design in Under the Waves is fantastic. Players can hear water rushing around as they explore, wildlife communicating in the distance, and ominous metallic noises within structures. The soundtrack also provides some rock music, which is used sparingly to emphasise the gravity of certain story elements. The soundtrack creates an incredible atmosphere, reiterating underwater isolation, and the natural beauty found in the depths of the ocean.
There’s a beautiful contrast between the underwater areas thriving with wildlife and the foreign man-made structures built by Unitrench. The untouched natural environment looks gorgeous, especially when exploring shipwrecks and other surface vessels that have succumbed to the ocean. Whereas every Unitrench structure is a collection of metal, an alien-like structure that detracts from the natural beauty found underwater. Of course, while exploring, most of the water is dark and murky as your submarine shines light on its surroundings. The emptiness between locations helps to highlight the unknown, making each structure and point of interest more prominent upon discovery. It helps encourage exploration and reward players for traversing the ocean floor.
Stanley’s Life Module has its own visual style, offering a 1970s futuristic vibe, reminiscent of buildings found in Fallout. One of the minor visual missteps of Under the Waves would have to do with Stanley himself. His facial features sometimes lack the subtlety to truly match the emotional performance of his vocal counterpart.
I noticed excessive screen tearing within the Life Module, but this issue wasn’t present during ocean exploration. I also encountered a glitch involving my save file, where an error message would appear during each auto-save attempt. Fortunately, I was able to rectify this problem by rebooting the software, and I lost any progression. If you do encounter this issue, a simple restart should solve the problem.
UNDER THE WAVES REVIEW
Under the Waves tells a powerful story that will resonate with many, and also offers a beautiful under water environment to explore. Despite some repetitive mission structures, an occasional annoying camera, and some underutilised gameplay features, Under the Waves is an experience that narrative-driven fans will truly enjoy diving into.
Powerful and memorable narrative.
Exploring the ocean depths is thrilling.
Strong sound design helps produce a fantastic atmosphere.
Stunning portrayal of the natural beauty found underwater.
Camera issues when exploring tight areas.
Underutilised and unnecessary gameplay features (survival, crafting, etc).
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. An Under the Waves review code was supplied by Five Star Games for the purposes of this review.
Under the Waves is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.