SOMA is an atmospheric, first person walking simulator and puzzler. Brought to us by Frictional Games, the folks behind Dark Descent and A Machine For Pigs, SOMA sits atop all of Frictional’s previous works proudly as their crowning achievement in storytelling and atmospheric world design. It wastes no time surprising the player time and again in the most unpredictable ways.
What makes the entirety of SOMA’s story so memorable is its beginning. Unlike the rest of the game, the beginning is set in the normal, real world that we all know. The futuristic, otherworldly-ness of the rest of game is in such sharp contrast that for the whole of the player’s first playthrough, the opening moments will haunt them. What was the introduction’s relevance? Which of the two realities is the real one? Have we been lying in a coma, experiencing the most vivid nightmare of our lives? Or was the Toronto we left behind just a virtual construction to keep us blissfully asleep to the horrible truth of the year 2104?
The game begins during a fuzzy dream sequence, in which we learn our protagonist, Simon Jarrett has been involved in a terrible car crash. His partner seems to have passed away and he has terminal brain injuries. With just a few months left to live, desperate, Simon decides to help out an aspiring doctor with his new experimental work. The plan was to sit in a seat, take a brain scan and use that scan as the blueprint for fixing Simon’s problems. Only, the headset comes off and everything changes. I shouldn’t explain exactly what happens in this transition as the first time it’s experienced carries so much weight throughout the rest of game, you’re better off going in fairly blind.
In light of that, let’s jump forward a little. Confused, afraid, yet bravely pushing on, Simon discovers he’s in a deep sea research facility called Pathos II. It wouldn’t be so bad if the place was filled with happy staff, jaunting about their day… It’s not. Of course. The place is run down, lights barely work most of the time, savaged corpses paint the walls and floors with great brushstrokes of blood. Humanity has retreated to the deep sea after a calamity on the surface, only to find a malicious organism in the depths that seems to be fond of melding with technology. Simon pushes on, sneaking around humanoid, machine – like abominations that are not friendly in the slightest.
As if the story hadn’t already got our minds churning with questions and theories, Simon encounters a robot – a Universal Helper. The robot calls himself Carl, is badly damaged and is convinced he is human. He begs for a doctor but how he does it – while keeping a sense of humour – is very human. We talk to Carl for some time. The quality of writing in SOMA is perfectly reflected in Carl as he is instantly established as a likeable character in all of around five minutes. When the player must subject Carl to excruciating pain in order to proceed in the game, this robot we should care little for screams and yells for mercy as humanly as possible. It is without question at this point that Carl’s consciousness is in this hunk of metal. We later find the real Carl, dead. Soon after, something happens to Simon that would kill a living human being. Yet Simon goes on and the game continues.
There are so many aspects to SOMA’s story worthy of discussion that this review could be a 50,000 word dissertation. But that would be one long spoiler. Just know that everything I have explained so far is inside of the first hour of the game and plenty more revelations await. I am honestly surprised that SOMA isn’t more widely discussed among gamers online. In some ways, it is one of the most ambitious and complex stories in gaming, right up there with the Metal Gear Solid saga. It’s a slow burn to finding all the answers but SOMA’s world is so carefully constructed that you’ll be curious about what lies around every corner. When you think about it, stories with a slow burn that are written well, tend to be the best. This one is written excellently.
Simon Jarrett is a likeable character because it is so easy to relate to him. His fear of death is what makes him just as human as us. He often says what we, the player, are thinking. With that comes reflective gameplay. He does not carry weapons or fight back. The two elements of SOMA are storytelling and puzzling and that’s it. This is by no means a complaint.
Levels within the game are separately loaded and offer very long periods of gameplay before the next load screen. The recurring gameplay loop within these levels is simply a case of getting from A to B. Yet each area is a level wide puzzle consisting of results that open doors in a particular sequence. If that doesn’t sound appealing, perhaps SOMA isn’t the game for you. It sounds simple. But when murderous machine organisms wander the halls, things start to get a little more complicated.
Frictional have always been masters of delivering horror effectively. Not once have they subjected us to cheap jump scares. Their delivery of horror is so much more “under the skin.” This is reflected in how we sneak around our foes. Looking directly at them will be a disservice to the player as the screen tears and stutters, crackling sounds and an unending scream bombard the player’s senses. It’s all intentional and couldn’t have been a smarter move on Frictional’s part. It completely dis-empowers the player as we have to sneak around these things just looking into a wall. It is genuinely unsettling. On paper it may sound like a dumb mechanic but it means several things. We never really get a good look at the things that are trying to kill us and having to look away to see what we are doing amps up the tension massively as there’s no telling how close we are. Simon gets to the other side of a room, frantically closes the door and for a split second, there it was, stalking us the whole time. It’s incredibly effective and this kind of imagination in delivery of horror goes a long way.
In some cases the tension is almost too much as we try to figure out a puzzle area, repeatedly going from A to B, hoping not to die. However, playing into the game’s discussion on perception of reality, dying doesn’t seem to be too bad. When a monster attacks and we fail to get away, we just black out on the spot and wake up later. No load screens. The monster is still around having wandered off somewhere, but so are we. Normally, the game being so forgiving would be a negative point. Yet, players will likely be grateful for this mechanic as the level – wide puzzles are fairly difficult from the get go.
This difficulty stems from an ability to interact with just about anything. Which of these things is the solution? A question often difficult to answer when it could be any one of the interactive items across the span of an entire level. SOMA never spoon feeds us with objective markers either. The player must be fully immersed in the story and paying attention to what’s said, to have any clue about what to do next.
In that regard, SOMA’s puzzling elements are almost as elitist as those found in Myst. Which is a great thing, considering so many developers are afraid to push the envelope on completely initiative driven puzzle mechanics these days. This should be a confirmation of whether or not SOMA is for you. It’s going to be like Marmite – you’ll either love it or hate it. If you happen to love it, SOMA’s challenging puzzles will give you a sense of accomplishment like few other games achieve in this modern era of action and visual potpourri.
Graphics & Sound
SOMA may not be in need of extra high levels of visual prowess but it has them anyway. Character models may be a little weak but we’ll only see a few in the opening moments of the game. Where SOMA really shines is in its presentation of Pathos II. The deep sea research facility is massive and stretches across the ocean bed, sections connected by underwater tramways. It is a truly a believable place that has been designed with the utmost care.
As we explore its hallways, it has a distinct “ghost town” feel to it. It feels like it was recently very lived in as we see laundry lying around. Computers left on with emails on the screen, lockers that can be opened to reveal nothing for the player but things like postcards, doodles and lab suits. It all adds to the ominous atmosphere of Pathos II, all the while contrasted by this weird black goo and organic cables, tearing through the facility as if to consume it. Complimenting all of this is fine attention to mood lighting and the shift between well lit areas and powered down areas, lit only by the red lights of a backup generator. To switch up the environment, we’ll also take the occasional walk across the ocean bed.
It’s really quite impressive how Frictional have succeeded in making the game appear broken in an intentional way. With enemies in the mix, all kinds of weird glitchy stuff happens almost as if the black rot infesting Pathos II is working its way into your console. With this kind of meta visual design, we do experience a performance trade off from time to time. Load screens can be almost frustratingly long and the occasional split second freeze will interrupt your gameplay. Instances of either however, are so few and far between, the game is easily forgiven of this.
Voice acting is of a surprisingly high standard for a game developed by a small independent studio. Simon is made all the more believable by the way he talks, the way he panics, the way he hates plans that don’t have great chances for survival. Sound design throughout SOMA is carefully executed to complement its atmospheric world. Music is very few and far between, which kicks in only for the most important moments, adding yet more weight to them. Sneaking around the corridors of Pathos II, players will likely be grateful for a full spectrum of surround sound. Suffice it to say, this game is best experienced with a good quality pair of headphones.
Almost as if Frictional are aware of their sound design, several options for sound are available. Small TV, Large TV, Home Cinema System and Headphones are all settings that can be selected by the player and each have been fine tuned by Frictional to offer the best soundscape available to any given player, dependant on the hardware they possess. Games, especially those on consoles, rarely give us this option. Audiophiles will be nothing less than pleased.
Without a doubt, SOMA is a rare gem. It has so many things going for it that make it stand out in the games industry. It allows optimisation of sound, offers a sci fi setting that finds a way to be original and is so atmospheric it made me feel like I was playing a new Bioshock game with a survival horror twist. The story it has to tell is absolutely one that contains subjects worth exploring, worth discussing. More than that, the gameplay it offers focuses on absolute player discovery through initiative. So much so that, without any markers on the screen, the player will feel like everything is happening because of them and not because the game has dictated it. This is a rare feeling in gaming and Frictional should be proud for having achieved it so completely.
|+ Incredibly atmospheric||– Occasional performance loss|
|+ Complex story themes nailed|
|+ Rewarding and elitist puzzle gameplay|