Back in 2005 Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent was released on PC. It took horror gaming by storm with its gripping atmosphere and terrifying gameplay, not to mention the ability to interact with almost everything in the environment – something very few games have done since. It is rightly known as one of the greats of the genre now.
In 2013 Frictional Games published the sequel, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. Development was handled by The Chinese Room (best known for Dear Esther and, more recently, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), and the game wasn’t received as well due to the stripped back interactivity and the more scripted nature of the game. Disappointed Amnesia fans were soon given a ray of hope, however, with last year’s announcement of SOMA. With Frictional Games once again on development duty, this new horror game promised an Amnesia-like experience in a more futuristic setting. And so, here we are in 2015 and SOMA has arrived. Has it delivered the experience fans have been craving since The Dark Descent?
SOMA starts off in the present, with Simon Jarrett going for an experimental brain scan after a car crash left him dying from cranial bleeding. His apartment offers a simple tutorial, teaching you how to pick up and examine objects, open doors and drawers, and generally how to play the game. It’s a great way to begin, surrounding you with the bright colours of modern-day Canada before plunging you into the darkness of the game proper. The controls consist mainly of pressing or holding R2 and using the right stick to manipulate whatever object with which you’re interacting. It’s a little clunky at first, not quite suiting a control pad, but Amnesia veterans will pick it up quickly and everyone else will get used to it eventually.
With no loading screens except for the overly long initial load, SOMA flows seamlessly into the future as Simon awakes from his scan to find the very different environment of Pathos-II’s research facility. This is where the game truly takes place, where you will be spending the next 8-10 hours. The confusion Simon feels upon discovering his new surroundings is well voiced, immersing you in the intriguing story and character right away. The dark, industrial-looking station provides a suitably eerie backdrop and it’s dripping with atmosphere as shadows move in the distance and strange sounds echo through the dank corridors.
Atmosphere is Frictional Games’ bread and butter, as Amnesia showed, and SOMA has it in spades early on – and again towards the end – but there are some real problems that dull that atmosphere for large periods. One of the major problems lies with the enemies that hunt Simon at various points, leading to some very tedious games of hide-and-seek. The atmosphere builds beautifully at the start, only hinting at the dangers present, but in true horror fashion, the reveals often feel weak and only serve to remove the fear completely. One particular monster required Simon not look directly at it, leading to a mind-numbingly boring section that left me continually staring at the floor for the better part of ten minutes, as the monster continually walked the only route through the area. In a game as linear as SOMA, it’s disappointing that this kind of issue is present.
The problems with the monsters aren’t always that bad, but it does highlight that SOMA is at its best when you’re just exploring Pathos-II and discovering the story through your findings. The storytelling is handled well, with the ongoing story told through direct, well-acted interactions, and the backstory handled exclusively through voice logs and documents found throughout the game. It’s a tried-and-tested method and it works well, especially in an abandoned research facility. The constant threat looms throughout the exploratory moments, leaving you constantly checking over your shoulder at times, as you look through lockers and browse computer files. The game often offers these optional story finds during monster sequences, which can double the tension when handled correctly.
The monster designs are mostly very creepy when they do show up, too. In the moments where you’re forced to walk the seabed between buildings, robots float around mumbling to themselves menacingly, and if you stick around long enough to listen to them, they even give away small details about what happened to the Pathos-II facility. The real monsters look incredibly creepy, twisted in both form and animation, and especially terrifying when angered. It’s just a shame that the game often suffers when they do show up, especially when most encounters go the same way: crouch, shuffle around until you find the right path, hide if spotted, repeat. It’s the exact same formula used in Amnesia, five years ago.
Puzzles break up the exploration and monster encounters, from finding simple switches to solving computer problems and even the good old fetch quest makes an appearance or two. These fetch quests inevitably lead you into dark basements or through creepy labs, usually containing one of the misshapen enemies as denoted by the checkpointing. This is another way in which SOMA ruins its monster encounters. The game stutters as the ‘saving’ icon appears, always a dead giveaway that you’re about to face danger. It lessens the feeling of dread that should have been present during these moments. Sometimes these encounters do tend to become puzzles in themselves, forcing to find the correct way to deal with each one as you move through the environment. Do you risk giving away your position by smashing that window, or find another way in? Can you hide in the darkness and sneak past when it passes, or can it see in the dark? It does add an interesting dimension to certain situations, even if it does sacrifice its scares in order to do this.
SOMA isn’t always devoid of scares, however. Unfortunately, it took a good six hours before I started to really find myself having to push through the fear of what lay ahead. This was due in part to my own fears, but also owed very much to the fantastic design of the final few areas. Much like Alien: Isolation, SOMA runs on far too long and pads out its length with tedious slogs, and its best moments come at the beginning and end of both games. Unlike Alien though, Frictional Games’ enemies don’t have nearly the same menace or intelligence of Giger’s Xenomorph.
SOMA does have some of the design quality to rival Alien: Isolation. The environments all look the part, abandoned but feeling like a place that was once inhabited, and although the outdoor sections are usually dull slogs through open water, it does look and feel like you’re at the bottom of the sea. Pathos-II feels like a place that could exist in our future, and is genuinely interesting to explore, digging up secrets that may have been best left…well, secret. This feeling of a once-living place helps sell the human aspect of the story too, especially when you’re forced to make difficult decisions that nobody should have to make. Simon’s reaction to these events is believable and heartfelt too, and the lack of PS4 trophies for making these decisions actually gives them more weight – it’s not about a meaningless number in an online profile or opening a different path in the story, it really is just about you living with the choice you made. Whether this was intentional or not, it really does work.
As a study in human behaviour and survival, and as a story-based game of exploration, SOMA is absolutely a success. But as a horror game, it’s just not possible to overlook the feeling of boredom created during the monster encounters that are so integral to the experience as a whole, and that the game is at least two hours longer than necessary. It’s a shame that Frictional Games hasn’t really moved on from Amnesia’s gameplay, even after five years.
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