Under The Waves opens with your character sinking gently down to the North Sea’s bed. Though protagonist Stan spends the descent chatting away with his boss, it’s difficult to pay attention to their harmless banter as the gorgeous setting to developer Parallel Studio’s upcoming narrative adventure unfurls before you.
The player may be playing Under The Waves for some amphibious sightseeing, but Stan’s on a job. It’s not long before the open ocean is traded in for a claustrophobic rusty building, where Stan cracks on with getting his employer’s aquatic assets up and running again. As a player, it’s here that you’re introduced to several of Under The Waves‘ mechanics: light puzzle solving, a crafting mechanic that’s used to keep your oxygen topped up, and the ability to switch seamlessly between walking and swimming.
It’s that last point that proves most intriguing, because it throws everything we’ve been taught about game design out of the window: when an objective marker appears on a platform above Stan, it takes several seconds of running head-first into a sensibly-placed ladder before realising he can simply swim up there. Switching between the two feels incredibly well done, and ensures that even in a drab industrial generator room, you never forget where the game is set.
Eventually, Stan finds what he’s here for: the MOON submarine, which allows him to traverse much more of the ocean. Once it’s up and running, you’re released back into the North Sea. Under The Waves juggles the traditional storytelling you’d expect from a game published by Quantic Dream with an open-world setting, and Parallel Studio CEO Ronan Coiffec points out that there will be plenty for players to explore when voyaging out in MOON.
Visually, Under The Waves‘ vision of the North Sea casts everything in a slightly ethereal aspect – you’re guided only by the soft glow of MOON’s headlamps, and whatever lost sunlight has trickled down to these briny depths – and it’s easy to imagine getting lost in this world, never to return to the game’s story again.
For the sake of getting as much as possible from this 30-minute hands-on, that wasn’t to be so, so we followed Stan to his new home: a small, cosy pod nestled far below the surface. This is Stan’s base for the game, from which he will explore the sea and display any collectables he find. It’s homely, and Coiffec says the futuristic ’70s approach to Under The Waves‘ setting was inspired by his time spent at sea with his father, a sailor.
Understandably, Stan’s well and truly knackered from his first day – but before he climbs into bed, the demo squeezes in a quick introduction to the base’s talkative computer and hints at Stan having some form of relationship trouble back on dry land. However, all of that pales in comparison to what happens when Stan dozes off: Under The Waves gets tipped on its head with a surreal, fantastical dream sequence that Parallel Studio says will play heavily into what Under The Waves is really about.
In just half an hour, Under The Waves packs a lot of enticing narrative threads that beg to be pulled – including those last few moments that effortlessly threw out everything I thought I knew about the game. Under The Waves will no doubt get weird – but we’ll just have to wait and sea how far it’s willing to go.