Retail price: $29.99
The publisher provided a copy of the game for this review.
Soma in biology definitions refers to both the separate parts of an organism other than their reproductive cells, and the concept of the body being a distinct entity unto itself, free from the soul, the mind or the psyche. These are no doubt two rather profound topics for one to delve into when making a science fiction horror title. As would normally be expected from the likes of Frictional, though, they have knocked it out of the park, and easily created one of the best games so far this year. Clearly inspired by the likes of Phillip K Dick and other science fiction writers of acclaim, SOMA tackles an all too familiar concept — what makes us human — with a refreshing outlook that often goes ignored.
The story of SOMA takes a little time to grow on you. Initially somewhat confusing, the game slowly plays its cards to reveal a rather intricate plot slightly reminiscent of the System Shock games. The plot admittedly starts off a touch generic. Simon Jarrett wakes up in a darkly lit room, barely able to see. He stumbles through the black to find a light-switch. This light-switch brightens the room, revealing a world that’s entirely alien to him. He has no memory of how or why he got there, only the last thing he remembers. He is currently housed in the underwater station called Pathos II. Pathos II is a bastion of the world’s brightest scientists all coming together to collaborate on possibly the greatest discoveries of all of humankind.
SOMA‘s pacing is where the game shines. Not dragging on too long as the previous Penumbra did, and avoiding the extremely light narrative style of Amnesia, SOMA strikes a good balance between the two, in the form of supporting character, Catherine. Catherine is one of the strongest points in the game, and the banter between her and Simon help the game move smoothly. Piecing together what happened on Pathos II is half the fun of SOMA and while much exposition is presented in first-person cut-scenes and NPC conversations, the really dark stuff is found by looking around and breathing in the atmosphere. Scribbled notes on whiteboards and photographs here and there may reveal further intricate details about earlier events, providing context to a concept you wanted more elaboration on. The idea of the “black blood” itself is cool and quite insidious.
The game really feels desolate. You are for the most part alone. Left to fend for yourself, and solve the mysteries of Pathos II, you are armed with nothing more than your wits and a glorified door opener — which doubles as an intercom and security card — called the Omnitool. Gameplay in SOMA consists of exploration. Despite the linear areas, Pathos II has plenty to do. Similar to previous Frictional outings Penumbra and Amnesia, SOMA is full of puzzles and optional side stories to discover. The puzzles aren’t initially straightforward, and while the game does its best to provide help without outright stating the answer, there are times when you’ll have to wrack your brain. While not on the level of intricacy and thought as Amnesia — dialling it back to Penumbra level — SOMA can be quite challenging and rewarding.
Like previous games, this is a survival horror title and as such there are times when Simon will have to stop what he is doing and hide. This is where the game gets interesting. While certain situations may call for Simon to avoid eye contact with a would-be assailant or just stand still and avoid making noise, there aren’t actually all that many places to hide. Unlike Amnesia, where there were plenty of cupboards and nooks and crannies to hide, SOMA has none of that. It’s a far more organic feel and makes space feel lived in and immersive, rather than feeling like a video game. Some objects that you think may provide you with cover won’t, and the old trick of throwing a piece of lab equipment or a rock to distract your pursuer doesn’t always work. Often it will alert them to your location, so a lot of it is trial and error. Despite this trial and error aspect of the game, SOMA isn’t hard. You will likely only die seven or eight times in the whole game, but SOMA is fantastic at making you think otherwise. The AI sadly, aren’t the absolute brightest and are easily thwarted, especially if there’re several routes to your objective.
SOMA‘s gameplay, however, never drags on. Unlike Alien: Isolation, which felt quite a bit artificially extended, SOMA has none of that. It’s relatively short and sweet and each section while gorgeous to behold, will not inhibit those more experienced players who want to race through it. Even exploring every nook and cranny only eats up roughly 14 hours for one entire playthrough. That being said, it’s by far quality over quantity, and this is another of its strengths.
Graphically the game is pretty. While not on quite the same level as Far Cry 4, Killzone: Shadow Fall or the recent Wolfenstein game, SOMA makes up for a small drawback in graphics with just how unique and diverse the setpieces are. The creations of Frictional merging organic art with the machine is at times reminiscent of the works of Hans Reudi Giger. This is due in no small part to the biomechanical look of SOMA, and the thick black tendrils that snake through every orifice of the station. Pathos II is run down. Sparks fly from broken wires; jammed doors prevent passing, and broken windows help paint the picture of what is atmospherically similar to the world of System Shock. Add to this scene a brilliant use of lighting and shadows — including one underwater scene involving guiding lights through a haze of black — and you have got yourself one hell of an immersive sci-fi title.
Surprisingly the game is quite visually impressive despite a lack of immense detail. There’re some gorgeous views and vistas where you can just stare down into the darkness of the ocean in awe. The architecture of the space feels both familiar and alien all at the same time. The technology works how you think it should, and animations of automatons, NPC and the like are well illustrated. It’s worth noting that although SOMA only ran on medium settings without issue, the highest tier of graphics wasn’t all that noticeably different, and still looked fine.
The audio for SOMA is downright creepy; from the shuffling of an NPC, a lifeless automaton springing to life, or the creaking of a door as you slowly creep around an unaware hostile, sound plays a large part in this game. The voice acting is superb, with emotions conveyed perfectly, right down to the minute tones in each VA’s voice during somber moments. Every sound fits the animation and action partaken as well as audio transmissions from the Omnitool and radio relays sounding distorted and alien the way they always do. Great attention to detail has been taken to the audio, with the music being mostly ambient and setting the mood, rather than being used for jumpscares and cheap thrills. The sound greatly lends to the immersion of Pathos II, and while SOMA isn’t as creepy as Amnesia, it still gives off a frankly unnerving atmosphere.
SOMA is truth be told, probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to System Shock III. While thematically different, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with the Pathos II, and the atmosphere of the UNN Rickenbacker from System Shock II. Both games give off that unnerving, unpleasant, yet wholly thrilling vibe. That feeling that makes you stop and freeze whenever you hear a sound that’s out of place. It gives off a nostalgic feeling of “I don’t really want to go down to that basement for a second or third time”. SOMA manages to avoid backtracking, however, keeping you enthralled throughout its roller-coaster ride of horror. While ultimately the game may stir some controversy it manages to nail what it sets out to do. Like all previous Frictional titles, it carries with it this wonder of interaction. Everything is more or less interact-able, from a cupboard door to a button, to a pipe lying on the ground. SOMA makes you want to touch “all the things”, something games are doing less and less these days.
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