An engaging and thought provoking horror game that could use a little less horror.
It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity
Confused, scared, alone and hopelessly lost - these are the feelings that permeate the dark hallways through which you’ll likely tip toe your way in SOMA, the newest title from Frictional Games. Makers of the much lauded Amnesia Dark Descent as well as the Penumbra series, their newest endeavor continues the psychological horror motif albeit in a completely new and surprising setting. It’s time to trade in that creaky oil lamp for a pressurized diving suit.
SOMA is one of those games that is hard to discuss in any sort of detail as saying almost anything is likely to be already saying too much. Players take on the role of Simon, an ordinary man who after a car accident undergoes a medical procedure meant to treat his fatal brain injury only to awaken in a dark underwater facility without a clue of how he got there, or what “there” actually is. Without giving much away, and being as vague as I can (hopefully enticing you to find out more for yourself) the game concerns itself with the question of humanity and how far we can push the boundaries of that word before it becomes irrelevant. The story is truly fascinating as are the questions it presents, some answered, some left for the player to figure out on their own. Even when the going got tough I felt compelled to push forward in order to get to the bottom of this mystery and the reveals and revelations throughout the campaign as well as the ending itself were certainly worth it.
But to get there you need to play through the game first, and that is where both the intentional and unintentional horror of SOMA lies in wait. Gameplay is an odd mix of clever environmental puzzles intermixed with rather clunky horror segments. Viewed entirely through the first person perspective with no hud to speak of apart from an inconspicuous crosshair that changes shape through context sensitive prompts, SOMA aims to eliminate all distractions and be as immersive as possible. This approach is excellently applied to the way the player interacts with the environment. There is a really clever system for operating objects that lends weight to everything you do. For example to open a drawer you hold down a trigger and pull back on the stick, seeing the drawer in question slide open only as far as you hold down the stick. Flipping switches, plugging in power cables, operating valves - that minimal movement required for all these functions go a long way to immerse you in what would otherwise be mundane actions automatically executed through single button prompts. When some monstrosity is lurking around the corner, plugging in a cortex chip and closing the bracket is a frantic event rather than hitting a button and watching the canned animation take place. The puzzles themselves aren’t especially challenging but are fun to execute and reminiscent of Dead Space in that they task you with manipulating fictional machinery that requires logic rather than a star shaped key to operate. By the end of the game you really feel like you’ve lived through that world because you were an active participant in making your way through it’s various obstacles.
Unfortunately at it’s core SOMA is a horror game and that aspect of gameplay is not nearly as fleshed out or fun to engage with. During certain parts of the story, the player will either have to sneak by or worse yet, perform some function while an enemy creature lurks about moaning and distorting your vision with it’s mere presence. Much like in their previous entry Amnesia, you have no means of harming these creatures and evasion is your sole option. These sections of SOMA turn into literal games of ring-around-the-rosie with a foe that you cannot hurt or outrun and that the game will often teleport to your immediate vicinity in an attempt to artificially up the tension, rendering careful sneaking rather pointless. A slow crouch is the only tool at your disposal, as loud sounds call attention to your position, as well as a rather worthless lean function that leaves you visible to the creatures. As a rule of thumb, if you see “it”, then “it” can see you, making the whole act of sneaking by “it” an exhausting affair. You soon come to realize why each area is filled with a mess of worthless objects that you can pick up and throw, ostensibly tools used for distracting your oppressors, but in reality the act of throwing anything will mark your position more often than camouflage it.
In essence the monster sections feel clunky and a little under cooked. With more options at your disposal these encounters would serve their purpose of creating an eerie atmosphere without becoming needlessly frustrating speed bumps between you and the story. Which is a shame because beneath the azure waves SOMA offers a compelling world to explore. Hopping about the ocean floor, surrounded by various flora with some wonderfully rendered lighting and depth of field effects you’re often reminded how this sub nautical environment is equally beautiful as it is haunting. The narrative is heavily augmented by various logs, notes and recordings which are sometimes placed off the beaten path. Not only is the player encouraged to explore their mysterious surroundings, but doing so rewards you with a grander picture of what is actually going on. SOMA is an extremely linear game so any incentive to stop and simply look around is a welcome respite. Throwing an invincible monster into the mix really dampens those exploratory spirits, and would often push me towards rushing through the area just so I can get back to that serene exploration among the ocean depths.
If you want to experience a fascinating story that tackles various topics about human nature then SOMA will definitely give you something to think about. The underlying premise, once you discover it, is both clever and terrifying. Unfortunately if you absolutely hate horror and a tense atmosphere is not something you want to experience after an already long and often exhausting day at work, then SOMA might prove a little overbearing at times. I’m generally not a fan of jump scares and such, and I almost abandoned the game in a few particularly taxing sections. Thankfully the premise of the story made me persevere and I’m glad that I did. If you don’t mind a little horror on the side and some slight performance hiccups (the PS4 load times are pretty bad and the framerate tends to dip severely in a few places; it also froze on me once) then I highly recommend you check SOMA out - there really aren’t many games out there that tell a story this engaging or this thoughtful.