Slice of Sea review on

I’ve spent eight hours with Slice of Sea, drinking in its otherworldly landscapes, mingling with its bizarre inhabitants, carefully digging through its environments to figure out my next steps, and I still feel basically helpless to tell you about it. It’s such a singular experience that there’s hardly a basis for comparison. How to explain that this dialogue-free journey through a watercolor dreamscape—the staggeringly complex work of solo developer Mateusz Skutnik—is one of the best adventures of the year? The only way to do it justice, I fear, would be to take your hand and walk you through scene by scene, pointing at all the little things that make it work and periodically looking over to go “See? See?!” Absent that possibility, I hope you’ll take my word for it: this is a one-of-a-kind excursion into a strange and fascinating world like you won’t find anywhere else, and even with a few caveats it isn’t to be missed.

You’re a sea creature in a mechanical suit that lets you walk on land, and you’re wandering through a vast, sandy region full of decaying train cars and dormant machinery in an effort to get … somewhere. That’s all the setup the game provides you, and you’ll get no more context for it until the very end. Promotional materials name our protagonist Seaweed, but even that information is superfluous to the experience; you are who you are, you’re where you are, and there are things to do around you. The game trusts you to figure out the rest.

You control Seaweed using a simple keyboard/mouse setup, with the arrow keys or A and D moving you left and right along the horizontal plane, the up/W key (or spacebar) dedicated to jumping and the down/S key letting you enter doorways and passages. Your mouse cursor is shaped like a fancy pen nib, shifting to an open hand when you hover over a hotspot. Occasionally a particularly inscrutable hotspot will come with a caption to explain what it is, but more often than not the cursor change is all the indication you’ll get. Right-clicking opens your inventory, from which you can drag objects to use in the environment. Interestingly, Seaweed doesn’t have to be physically near or even able to access a hotspot for you to interact with it via the mouse; if you, the player, can see it on screen, you can click it or use an object. This means that, movement aside, you’ll sometimes feel less like you’re playing as Seaweed than as an omniscient observer helping them out on their journey.

Seaweed’s world is big, open and lonely, and each screen gives the impression of a once-bustling world whose gears have long since come creaking to a halt. Everywhere are crumbling mechanisms and stilled engines; beached ships, derailed train cars and busted machinery dot the landscape, long-abandoned by whoever it was that once maintained them. Sand is everywhere, gumming up the works and slowly obscuring the borders between civilization and wilderness. People live here—or creatures that resemble people—but most of these are wanderers too; those few who appear at home where you find them seem nonetheless suspicious and anxious. Something happened here, and the game never comes close to explaining what it was; still, the more you explore the more you’ll find yourself feeling that you’ve almost grasped it.

The environments have the style and character of a forgotten picture book. The thick lines and exaggerated dimensions of the backgrounds are reminiscent of Gahan Wilson, while the bizarre characters with their feathery brushstrokes and impressionistic watercolor features might have been lifted from Quentin Blake’s nightmare journal. Every space, no matter how apparently deserted, feels alive—like you’re simply passing through somewhere that once played host to other stories and will continue existing long after you’ve left. The sublimely haunting score by The Thumpmonks hangs over everything, seeming to embody and express both the barrenness of the dunes and Seaweed’s own loneliness. Synth tones like whistling sea breezes mingle with forlorn chimes and keening train whistles, while certain tracks call to mind a forgotten Victrola record, with croaking horns backed by whispering percussion like distant rain. (That’s to say nothing of “Let Me Go Home,” the superb end-credits song by Cat Jahnke.) Unsurprisingly, the soundscape is equally superb, bringing the vast locales to creaking, windblown life as you pass through.

Huge and lonely it may be, but the setting is anything but empty. A varied menagerie of strange beings lurk in the rubble and tumbledown settlements; some are hominid, like the sad-looking goblin people who pace aimlessly and avoid acknowledging you, while others seem more animalistic, like the scuttling hairballs who peer out at you from the shadows. Still others are totally alien, like the winged, spidery beast who leers at you with a human face. The character designs are all inventive and unexpected, and the total absence of context or explanation adds a depth and breadth to the place that lengthy expostulation couldn’t. Seaweed may or may not know why, for example, giant whispering nautiluses float watchfully overhead in so many places, but either way it requires no comment—that’s how this world works, and it’s beyond any one person (or wide-eyed sea creature) to explain.

Every screen is loaded with details whose functions you puzzle out by clicking. The game is 100% dialogue-free, with the only legible text appearing when you hover over items in your inventory and certain (but not most) hotspots. On those few occasions where you receive instruction, it comes in the form of pictographic diagrams. As much as it expects you to learn by doing, though, the game is very rarely inscrutable; on occasions when I gave up and consulted a walkthrough to figure out what exactly I had to do next, it almost always turned out to be because I’d overlooked a detail that was hiding quite prominently in plain sight. This wasn’t always the case—a few necessary objects struck me as having been hidden much too well—but if you take your time and really give your surroundings a good once-over, the puzzles turn out to be quite intuitive.

Many of these are inventory-based; Seaweed has an unlimited capacity for item storage and the environments are littered with objects to collect, so at times part of the challenge comes from sorting through your hoard to figure out what, if anything, is relevant. Much of what you can pick up turns out to be useless detritus or shiny, optional collectibles, but soon enough you’ll begin to get a sense for what’s important and what isn’t. Oftentimes an object’s name will clue you in to where you should use it: you might not realize, for instance, that a particular background structure is pertinent until you find something whose name evokes it. It’s immensely satisfying to piece various clues together and then to suddenly understand the context that unites disparate elements, or to realize that some visual detail you’ve passed a hundred times is the key to progressing further.

Many obstacles require figuring out how to operate arcane machinery; as with the other puzzles, you’ll have to experiment. Some machine parts only activate if Seaweed is physically near them; others have multiple moving components that you’ll need to work all at once. Still others have complex and untraditional locks that will only open once you’ve entered their combinations. These can involve noting down symbols you observe around the game world, collecting certain items to place in an incomplete display, or occasionally manipulating visual arrays into configurations you’ve discovered elsewhere. As with the inventory puzzles, divining the solutions means paying attention to your surroundings and being observant on every screen; as long as you keep thinking about what you see, you’ll find the game has given you what you need to move forward.

And how much moving you’ll do! Slice of Sea’s world is enormous, with a staggering number of distinct screens to explore, and you’ll traverse every inch of it several times over. It’s good, then, that Skutnik minimizes what could have been a daunting inconvenience by giving Seaweed a brisk walking speed and providing an incredibly helpful teleportation system. There are fifteen waypoints scattered around the landscape, each of which has to be brought on-line with a click. Once you’ve found one, you can use it to immediately travel to any of the others you’ve previously located. They’re distributed in such a way that, while you’ll still have to do some trekking, manual travel is so greatly reduced as to become hardly noticeable after a while. There’s even an item you can find that lets you teleport to any waypoint no matter where you are, making a user-friendly process even easier.

Unfortunately, not all travel is this straightforward. As mentioned, this is a game where—apart from some early on-screen prompts to explain the controls—you’ll have to figure out how things work on your own. One rule that’s never explained, however, is that places where you can travel “north” (i.e., go through an open doorway, gate, or passage in the middle of the screen) are marked by waving banners bearing a cryptic rune. Sometimes the exit is so obvious that the extra signage isn’t necessary, but in other places there’s nothing to indicate that there even is an exit. More than once I wandered back and forth, at a total loss for what to do next, only to finally look up where to go and realize that a seemingly noninteractive vista was a pathway to whole new swathes of the world. This happened several times before I belatedly noticed the flags fluttering over each of the exits I’d missed and realized what they signified.

Thankfully this is an ultimately minor issue in a game that otherwise does a fantastic job of drawing you in and beckoning you further into its world. Even after saying all this, I’ve only managed to scratch the surface of what makes Slice of Sea so special; words are ill-suited to describe something that seems in some ways to exist beyond them. Such abstract storytelling won’t be to every player’s taste, of course, and the lack of direction may be a difficult sell for some. Still, the exploration and puzzle-solving are so engaging, and the world so vividly realized, that anyone who gives it the chance it deserves will find an uncanny experience like few others out there, and one that will stick with them for a long time.

Our Verdict:
Slice of Sea sets you loose in a gorgeously illustrated dreamscape and trusts you to figure out what needs doing along the way. Its lack of direction won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you long to get lost in beautiful otherworldly surroundings, you won’t want to miss it.


The Good:
– Stunningly beautiful hand-drawn art with unique character designs, wonderfully strange creatures, and evocative sound design
– A huge world to explore with lots to do
– Beautiful, haunting score with an excellent end-credits song
– Puzzles are well-designed and rewarding to figure out
– Teleportation system makes traveling easy while still preserving the vastness of the world

The Bad:
– Some important visual elements are easy to miss, especially screen exits
– Incredibly abstract and un-straightforward in a way that may turn some players off

written by Will Aickman — 24 Jan 2022