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Under the Waves Review – A Ham-Fisted Underwater Adventure

Under the Waves review

There’s a lot to like about Under the Waves, an underwater adventure from Quantic Dream and Parallel Studio where you play as Stan, a professional diver employed by an oil company. With a poignant narrative, engaging exploration and some excellent moments of tension, this is a game that really wants you to feel something. The problem is, it tries a little too hard: made in conjunction with a real-world ocean charity, Under the Waves really, really wants you to care – and it’s rather ham-fisted in its approach.

Stan is immediately a likeable, if troubled, protagonist. He’s completely alone for the vast majority of Under the Waves, with only his colleague Tim as company over the radio – and the strange robot computer in his habitat. As you probably would if you were spending multiple weeks completely alone, Stan spends quite a lot of time talking to himself – but his monologues, or ramblings, form one of the game’s biggest narrative devices. It’s immediately apparent that Stan’s dealing with some trauma, which unravels in unexpected ways over the course of the story.

But this isn’t a game about Stan and his family trauma. Not really, anyway. Really, this is a game about Unitrench, the oil company that Stan works for, and the work they’re doing under the sea. Stan’s a lone worker on one of its mining set-ups in the North Sea, and it’s his job to perform routine checks and maintenance to make sure everything’s going ship-shape. Spoiler alert: things don’t go ship-shape very long. Starting with a minor oil leak, things go from bad to worse.

Under the Waves review

Under the Waves wants, nay, needs you to know how terrible this oil company – and indeed all real-world oil companies by extension – are. It will try to get you attached to the beautiful sea life around your habitat: the majestic whales that swim past gracefully, the schools of fish dotted throughout the massive blue void that surrounds you. One particular creature – a playful seal – is even given a name and a personality to really get your emotions invested. And so when things go wrong, you’ll feel angry at Unitrench and the terrible decisions made by its faceless corporate leaders. As Stan, you’ll have to carry out their dangerous actions – like turning the pumps up to full power to eke as much oil as they can before a storm rolls in and halts proceedings for a while. You know it’s going to go wrong. It does go wrong.

Related: 20 Best Story-Driven Games on PS4 and PS5

And yet, we’re also made to feel sorry for Stan, despite him being a willing employee of Unitrench. But, hey, it’s OK, because he knows the company is bad. He’s only down here because he needs to escape from his personal demons on the surface. And that makes it fine, somehow, because he’s not the one making the decisions. He’s just carrying them out under orders. Yes, Stan is a likeable protagonist, but we do wish there was an option to say “no thanks” long before he does decide to throw in the towel.

Under the Waves review

There are some genuinely great video game moments in Under The Waves. Exploring the sea in Moon – your personal submarine – is a real joy, with plenty of optional discoveries to make, shipwrecks to explore and sea life to observe. There are opportunities to simply go off by yourself and enjoy the thrill of diving – and you really should. These are some of the best moments in the game, rivalled only by few tense sequences that see you exploring abandoned Unitrench facilities. There are a few moments that feel like the likes of Fort Solis, except you’re underwater rather than in space; Under The Waves occasionally manages to create a truly eerie atmosphere where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. We wish there were more of these: this giant, underwater facility is menacing and fascinating, but it feels underutilised. Any thrilling, tense sequences are brought to an end far too soon, and it’s a real shame.

Instead, Under The Waves uses Stan’s mental state to offer a level of tension. Whether dreams or simply hallucinations, we get to experience several sequences of Stan seeing things, and exploring an underwater world that only exists in his mind. They give us a good insight into the trauma that he’s dealing with and they make for interesting set pieces – but we’d have rather seen more of the real terrors of the underwater world that Stan’s dealing with. Seeing ghosts of the past is one thing, but can we see more of those giant, terrifying oil drills?

There’s also the fact that, as much as we did enjoy Stan’s story, it’s sort-of undermined by the fact that Under The Waves feels like one big piece of marketing material for Surfrider Foundation Europe, the not-for-profit organisation that Parallel and Quantic have partnered with on the development of the game. Not only are you subjected to messages about Surfrider on the loading screens, but you’ll also encounter various bits of information about the organisation while playing. It breaks the immersion somewhat: Under The Waves is set in the 1970s, and its neo-futuristic design means it’s not exactly based in reality. We have the utmost respect for the work that charities like Surfrider Foundation does, but we do wish there was a more subtle integration here.

Under the Waves review

Unfortunately, Under The Waves is also marred by a few technical issues. There are some instances of awful screen tearing, particularly when moving through the rooms of Stan’s underwater habitat, which is seriously off-putting. There’s also an issue with the game’s save system on PS5: after a while of playing, we’ve been getting system messages pop up notifying us of save failures each time the game autosaves. Thankfully, we haven’t actually lost any progress, but the box popping up is very frustrating – and can only be rectified by quitting the game and reloading. Both are fairly minor issues in the grand scheme of things, though, and could be quickly fixed with a post-launch patch.

We’ve come away from Under The Waves with mixed feelings. We’ve very much enjoyed some elements of the game: exploring the ocean is simply wonderful, and the more tense moments set in the eerie underwater facilities have kept us on the edge of our seats. But there are plenty of frustrations, too, and the impact of the experience is ultimately dampened by the fact it all feels like one big advert for a non-profit organisation.

Under The Waves Review – GameSpew’s Score

GameSpew Our Score 6
This review of Under the Waves is based on the PS5 version of the game, via a code provided by the publisher. It’s available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC.
Editor in chief // Kim's been into video games since playing Dizzy on her brother's Commodore 64 as a nipper. She'll give just about anything a go, but she's got a particular soft spot for indie adventures. If she's not gaming, she'll be building Lego, reading a thriller, watching something spooky or... asleep. She does love to sleep.