SOMA. The newest works of survival horror to be developed by Frictional Games after Amnesia: A Dark Descent back in 2010. I have not played Amnesia or any of their past titles so I went into this with a mind uncompromised by opinions of their previous works. This may cause a little ignorance but it helps me be more plastic to the SOMA environment. Upon finishing the game I decided there are three main points that need to be discussed: the gameplay, the immersion and the story. I am putting a mild spoiler alert on this review so you have been warned.
SOMA follows the strictly pacifistic type of game play commonly found in modern survival horrors where you get attacked by big scary monsters and you have no way of defending yourself. A mechanic that has been done to death but stays relevant to the ‘be scared’ nature of the genre. There’s nothing scarier than being helpless in the face of danger. This, however, detracts from the realism for it takes away the choice of picking up whatever’s closest to you in a fit of panic and swinging it around in a craze like what would actually happen in these situations. This mechanic would easily be exploited if implemented so I understand the omission but it would have been nice to approach a situation with a different option to sitting around and waiting for the monster to wander off. You are even given a gun at some point but you can only use it on a non-hostile and then it’s never introduced again. This is the biggest criticism I have about the game play. It’s boring. When hit with a threat you are really only given the option of not being seen so you just get into a shadow then wait for the monster to walk away from where you want to be then progress. I played most of the game with my guitar under my arm just so my hands had something to do whenever I was forced to sit in a shadow for far too long. I get that during these parts I am meant to be scared and in a state of panic but there are two main points I want to make as to why this game did not scare me.
Point 1: Getting attacked doesn’t kill you instantly (some enemies do but most don’t) and point 2: The penalty to dying is very small. Point 2 is the most prominent. Dying just takes you back to the save point and the game frequently saves. There are points where I just ran through segments without a care because I couldn’t be bothered wasting the time being sneaky.
The game expects to stand solely on the leg of ‘being scary’ and for the faint hearted that’s perfectly fine but there were times I was too bored to be scared. That being said the game still deserves applause for the diversity of the enemies. Every enemy needs to be approached differently so they start off as minor puzzles which is what this game does right. The puzzles were frequent, fun and fundamental. The game doesn’t insult your intellect nor cause you to pull your hair out. They found the healthy balance between simple and satisfying. I never really got stuck on any puzzles but I did find myself engaged while solving them. Some require you to be observant and some require logic and lateral thinking so it definitely gives your grey matter something to spark about. I was able to walk away from the game with nothing but positive thoughts even though I found myself bored a lot of the time. This is owed partly to the puzzles and partly to the immersion.
I found myself quite immersed in this game. The developers had great ideas that were implemented well. A lot of people forget that it’s not enough just to have a good idea. A good idea with bad implementation is like a flame without oxygen. SOMA successfully immerses the player by correctly using two very important tools. Setting and atmosphere. Which I think deserve their own subsections of this review.
The setting is that of deep sea mixed with a futuristic robotic feel. This sets up a juxtaposition between nature and technology then it takes it a step further. It melts the two together. You see random dumps of black mechanical waste, sometimes mixed with a body that used to be alive, then you go outside onto the seabed and as you see nature you can’t help but notice a parallel. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between reef and the roots of AI. Even the health stations you come across are flower looking machines that pulsate with life. This all creates a living, breathing world where the sections blend together perfectly creating a throughline that never gets tedious. At no point did I sigh at ‘yet another corridor’ or something.
In most horror games, because you’re constantly on edge the whole time I find I want to put the controller down often and go do something else just because it’s stressing. I found it very hard to put the controller down in this game because of the setting. Every time you get to a new area you want to explore that area and you don’t even notice because you’re already immersed. That’s what a good setting does.
The atmosphere reminds me of old Sci Fi action movies from the 80’s and 90’s like Total Recall and Judge Dredd. It loosely throws dirt and robots into a centrifuge and what comes out isn’t exactly sparkling clean. The sets bleed grit and pain forcing the player to occasionally stop, look around and go “oh wow”. What the atmosphere brings most to the table is believability. Everything looks as though that is how it should be given the context. At no point did I find myself thinking something was out of place or strangely illuminated because everything just made sense. The whole time you feel shrouded in darkness and death. You walk through desolate labs and workstations stepping over the occasional headless body. There were a couple cheap scares. Throughout the whole game there is always random noises happening in the background to give the feeling that you’re not alone. In this state of mild paranoid something like the lights turning off or a loud noise can be startling. This is cheap because the threat of danger doesn’t change. I’m reminded of annoying scenes in horror movies where there will be some big build up of unease then a cat, or whatever, jumps out. That being said, the music was done very well. It would adequately set up the scenes and provided emphasis when it was needed without overpowering. These elements combine to make you think you really are in a futuristic work space found on the bottom of the sea.
The story starts with the protagonist, Simon Jarrett, going for a brain scan for some accident. After the scan he wakes up in a futuristic station that reeks of struggle and abandonment. The seamlessness and instantaneousness of the transition is very important as it gives you a major clue as to what has happened. You soon find out that the brain scan recorded a digital copy of your brain that gets integrated into a robot body almost a century after. That is what you play as. A robot copy of some guy that has been dead for decades. Before the brain scan when he is told the scan will hurt as much as getting his picture taken Simon says “Indians thought cameras would steal their souls”. This quote resonates through the whole meaning of the game as the story weaves through all the stitching of existential mortality. If an exact copy of you exists how can you claim your soul is your own. It’s easy to tell that the developers felt heavily for this philosophy because the game explores the deepest depths of the dark sea this philosophy creates.
The whole storyline is littered with segments that shake your understanding of individuality and you are forced to make decisions that blur the meanings of right and wrong. The most commendable thing about it all is that it is done tastefully with the exception of some of the dialogue. At times the dialogue is almost a mockery of itself and there are some points that just don’t seem realistic. In saying all this the story also doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. You aren’t constantly bombarded with heavy philosophy so when the time comes that something heavy does fall on your lap you are strong enough to lift it. SOMA’s depiction of robotics and technology delivers a unique and refreshing addition to the Sci Fi genre.
Was SOMA scary? Not to me. The enemies were definitely designed to be scary but the idea of having a big mass of flesh, with a couple legs and faces on it, shakily trying to walk sounds like it could be scary but in practice it comes across as goofy. When it would run at me and the game would get all distorted and the scary noises happened I couldn’t help but think to myself “what happens now”. The only thing that would have happened in real life is it would have bumped into me, fallen over and not been able to get back up. Boy is my heart pounding. The game wasn’t scary and the moments where it was supposed to be scary were boring and annoying but the game has stronger legs it can stand on.
All other aspects of the game were perfectly fine and incredibly enjoyable. If it hadn’t been confined to the borders of the survival horror genre then the wasted effort of trying to scare people could have been spent on trying to make people think, which the puzzles and story already do well. If the stakes were higher, say, if I controlled when the game saved and I only had a certain amount of saves then the blame of how much progress lost from dying would be solely on me. I would have to manage my saves, decide the threat level of any given area and if I hadn’t saved in a while then I would be screaming scared of the bumbling flesh monster.
SOMA is an amazing first person puzzle game with an engaging and unique story and a setting and atmosphere that really brings you into the game. SOMA is an average horror game.
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