“If we could rebuild even a small part of ourselves, why wouldn’t we do that?”
Having re-defined horror games for a new generation with the wildly successful Amnesia series, Frictional Games returned to create an all-together different form of terror. SOMA is horror yes, but not the jump-shocky kind. Instead it’s something far more disturbing, one that plays on deep-rooted fears of existentialism, loneliness, consciousness and purpose. It’s horror that stuck with me long after I put the controller down and watched the end credits play.
SOMA has you play as Simon, a normal everyman who’s receiving treatment for serious brain trauma due to a car crash he was recently in. He awakes in a dilapidated and seemingly abandoned undersea laboratory with no memory or any reasoning for how he ended up there. Before long, he finds that he’s not exactly alone under the sea, and is hunted by various monstrosities that inhabit these science installations. Exploring a complex labyrinth of labs and undersea constructions he seeks to find out how he got there, and more importantly how he can escape.
Although It’s difficult to write in-depth about SOMA’s narrative for fear of spoilers, I will say it’s got one of the most intelligently written, and powerful sci-fi stories I’ve come across in any medium. This is in large part thanks to Frictional Games’ deft handling of some particularly complex themes as previously mentioned. The fantastic voice acting adds real gravitas to the game’s set-piece moments, totally selling you on the raw devastation and bleakness that is to be discovered in SOMA’s world.
Away from the stellar narrative, SOMA mixes it’s existential story-telling with traditional survival horror mechanics. A mixture that sometimes leaves a little to be desired. Like the Amnesia games, SOMA is a puzzle-adventure title played out from a first-person perspective. The bulk of the gameplay involves interacting with objects around the environment in order to solve puzzles. These usually take the form of bread-and-butter game missions like restoring power to a machine and finding key card passcodes. Unfortunately like with many games of similar ilk, SOMA struggles to communicate the design of some puzzles clearly to the player. There were a few occasions where I had no real idea what I was supposed to be doing in order to advance. An annoyance exacerbated by the game’s lack of guidance or hints. Now that’s an issue that will be down to personal preference, many will enjoy this real-world logic to puzzle solving – writing down every scrap of info found in the game, directions etc. But for others like me, there were a few leaps in logic when it came to manipulating the environment that I found difficult to grasp.
The other main gameplay element is running away and hiding from monsters, notice how I didn’t mention combat? Well that’s because it doesn’t exist, Simon doesn’t have the option of fighting them even if you desire to. The creatures themselves all react to different stimuli, for instance one is particularly acute to sound, another is blind and so on. Usually, you have to figure out how to loop around them while they investigate the area and other sounds. Moreover, these encounters tend to be limited to a few corridors or even a single room, yet it can’t stop the game feeling a bit of a slog in later sections, especially when one particularly annoying final boss comes along. The narrative ultimately outpaces the sluggish survival horror at it’s core.
That’s not to say these encounters aren’t tense most of the time though, the various creatures induce a deep sense of dread when they come along. Besides the truly grotesque noises they come out with, they also have the effect of disorientating your screen and perspective. For instance as they get closer to where you’re hiding, your screen will shudder violently. It’s all thoroughly unpleasant, in the way the game intends of course.
Moving past the gameplay now, SOMA’s environment and overall artistic direction is sublime. A thick oppressive atmosphere haunts your every step through varied locales such as claustrophobic submarines, chaotic living quarters and modern laboratories. What’s more, jaunts to the seafloor are also peppered in throughout which are particularly creepy with SOMA revelling in what the player fearing what they may or may not have glimpsed.
The sound design too, my word the sound design throughout this game is immaculate. It’s familiar and alien all at once: piercing shrieks, guttural machinery and chilling shrieks. One of those games where you’ll get your money’s worth out of a good pair of headphones.
It’s deeply regrettable though that in spite of all it does right, SOMA has some pretty pronounced technical issues on PS4, at least at the time when I played it to completion. The game frequently pauses to load in between areas, but more irksome is how the frame-rate totally plummets during set-piece moments, it feels like single digits which is absolutely nuts really.
SOMA is a thoughtful and well-written horror game that explores some grand themes in a mature manner. The sound design is superb and the atmosphere throughout is chilling, but as the game wears on, the gameplay starts to fray at the edges. Enemy encounters can sometimes descend into tedium, and puzzles could do with a bit more structure to its logic, not to mention the technical issues. Still if you’re a horror / sci-fi fan, SOMA is well-worth picking up.
+ Masterful storytelling and fantastic voice acting
+ Spectacular, and deeply immersive sound design
+ Haunting atmosphere
-Muddled puzzle design
– Frustrating enemy encounters
-Significant technical issues experienced on PS4