Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Played on: PC
Release Date: September 22, 2015
Time Played (Steam): 11.1 hours
Paid: $15.94 (Multi-game bundle)
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
-Philip K. Dick
It is with this quote that SOMA begins its interesting, insightful, and terrifying descent, both metaphorical and literal. In its opening moments, the game establishes you as Simon Jarrett, a seemingly ordinary young man who is suffering from a severe head injury following a tragic car crash. Given months to live, Simon decides to undergo an experimental procedure under the observation of Dr. David Munshi. However, as the first stage of the procedure (a brain scan) begins, Simon is knocked out, and wakes up somewhere…else. He eventually determines that he is onboard a largely abandoned facility known as PATHOS-II, and it’s some 100 years in the future. After some exploring, Simon is able to contact one of the other sites on PATHOS-II, and reaches a woman named Catherine Chun. She informs him of the purpose of the facility, and the two set out to complete the mission Catherine began before everything went to hell.
Now, you may have noticed that I was somewhat vague when it came to talking about the story there. That’s because a lot of the story is drip-fed to you throughout numerous dialog exchanges as the game goes on. There are lots of minor revelations that are interspersed throughout, which manages to keep things interesting. However, this means that it’s really difficult to talk about story specifics without delving into spoiler territory, and SOMA is a game that is far better to experience rather than to be told about. I will just say that I found the story to be very compelling. A lot of the dialog between Simon and Catherine was incredibly well done and very believable. Emotions range from relief to anger to horror, and all of them are conveyed flawlessly, particularly given the lack of visual feedback that accompanies the dialog. As well, the themes were handled extremely well, tackling classic sci-fi concepts such as what it means to be human in ways that felt fresh. The game provides you with a few moral choices, which, while not seeming to have a significant impact on the story, made my skin crawl nonetheless. Interestingly, I found that the ending of the game was a bit unsurprising; I felt like I could have seen it coming. At the same time, though, it managed to throw enough of a curveball in that everything was brought to a satisfactory close, despite being abrupt to conclude. In all honesty, the ending actually had me tearing up a bit, though that may have been an emotional release more than anything. Regardless, the story was fantastic, which was a good thing, as I needed motivation to put up with all of the spooks that were hanging around.Speaking of spooks, oh boy. The reason that I was so interested in SOMA from the start was because of all the praise I had heard for its story and presentation. I knew that it had some horror elements but figured, “Ahhhh, it can’t be THAT bad.”
I thought that. I was wrong.
Keep in mind, I am by no means a horror game aficionado. System Shock 2 is still a game that I have yet to get past the first hour of because it makes my heart feel ready to explode. And that’s not even a full-on horror game! Make no mistake, though, SOMA is definitely classified as a survival-horror game. There are monsters, and they do not want you to be around. To the game’s credit, it did a great job of introducing lots of variety in the things that stalk you. Each one only appears in one or two areas before a new Lovecraftian horror is thrown your way, complete with a whole new set of mechanics. Some may have problems seeing you, while others just shouldn’t be seen. Again, I’m being deliberately vague here to avoid spoiling the mechanics, but it can take some figuring (and numerous moments of pants-pissing terror) before you figure out how to work around each monster. This added variety was a nice change of pace from many horror games, which think that throwing the same monsters at you in the same way over and over is somehow scary. There was a bit of a weird disconnect between the horror being experienced by Simon and his subsequent dialog, though. He almost never comments on the abominations he faces, and when he does, they are very quickly written off, as if moments of sheer terror are but a drop in the ocean (so to speak) compared to the main narrative of the game.The game quickly settles into a fairly standard loop: go to a new site, find some problem there, realize that what you need is somewhere in the area through a number of conspicuously dark and creepy rooms, and spend the next half hour or so skulking around, praying that those footsteps aren’t actually RIGHT THERE OH MY GOSH. Each time, you are able to interact with various objects in the environment, whether it’s flipping switches, pulling levers, messing with computer terminals, or just picking up and throwing things. A minor complaint I have is that being able to pick up most of the small objects in the environment felt unnecessary. The game allows you to grab, examine, and throw everything from glassware to boxes, but almost none of it seemed to do anything. There are a couple of points where you have to break windows with heavy objects, and I managed to get by a monster one time by throwing a box at its head to distract it, but beyond that, I basically just ignored anything that wasn’t glowing or moving. However, sometimes the things you needed to use to progress were not very obvious in the environment; there was one occasion where I found myself getting frustrated with having to put up with the awful monsters stalking me, while also having no clue as to what I was supposed to do. This aside, you’re wandering around, solving small environmental puzzles, creeping through hallways, peering around corners, and feeling your paranoia increase by the minute.
The gameplay worked well. Sure, it was simplistic, but this isn’t a game that needs complicated. The last thing you want when you’re frantically charging through hallways being chased by glowing hellspawn is to be fiddling around with button prompts and menus. In fact, I greatly appreciated the game’s minimalistic approach. The only HUD element is a tiny white dot in the centre of the screen that changes to an action icon when you hover over interactable objects. Pressing Tab (on PC, of course) will show you what items you currently have in your possession, which the game again keeps quite limited. I almost never had to take advantage of this functionality, because objectives were kept simple and easy to track.As for the game’s presentation, well, as I hinted at earlier when discussing the dialogue, it is incredible. Sure, if you get close to many objects, the lower-quality textures become apparent. However, the level of auditory and visual detail that has been achieved by the folks at Frictional Games is simply stunning to behold. The underwater outdoor environments deserve special mention; despite sometimes being a pain to navigate (I got horribly lost on one occasion), they are incredibly immersive (pun intended). Walking between massive constructs coated in rust, barnacles, and seaweed as your ears are filled with the sounds of water bubbling and Simon’s shallow breathing does an excellent job of transporting you to another world. This extends to the horror elements of the game, where every subtle creak, buzz, and thud only serves to put you more on edge. Some of the interiors in the game can look a bit samey, but things are kept interesting by the addition of the WAU, a cancerous organism whose influence has spread over much of PATHOS-II. Black light-covered tendrils creep along walls, bar doors, and cluster into pulsing heads wherever you are. Not to mention the one place whose walls seem to be partially made up of flesh. Oh, and the decapitated corpses everywhere. Ugh. Also, the soundtrack deserves special mention; despite consisting of very short tracks, I’ve found it to be quite listenable on its own, eschewing many of the traditional “horror” sounds mostly for atmospheric piano and synth music.
All this splendor does seem to have a cost, though; the load times can be absolutely ridiculous. Granted, I was running the game off a mechanical hard drive, but still, load times of two minutes or more seemed a tad excessive. This only happened when loading a saved game, though, and the game provides a brief recap of the events leading up to your current place in the story while doing this loading, which is quite handy.I also had mixed feelings about the game’s use of screen distortion effects to accentuate certain parts. On the one hand, having your screen randomly start glitching out as you approach a monster (or it approaches you) was surprisingly effective at building tension. A section that took place at the bottom of the ocean used an extremely strong depth-of-field effect to simulate the incredible water pressure at that depth. However, some of the effects, such as the colour separation that happens when you are in a weakened state, got kind of annoying. It got to the point where I was restoring my health not so much because I felt like I had to, but because I just wanted to be able to take normal screenshots. The game does offer the option to turn these effects off, but I feel like they’ve been integrated so heavily into the experience that it wouldn’t be the same without them. I know, I know, I can’t have it both ways. But still, that doesn’t mean I can’t dream, right?
SOMA is…wow. Just…wow. I’ve barely been able to stop talking about the game since I beat it. I want to recommend it to everyone who hasn’t looked at it, including those who don’t typically care for horror games. It’s worth noting that a mod for the game called the “Wuss Mod” has been created to allow people to experience the story without dealing with the jumpscares and pursuing monsters. While I did not play with it so as to fully experience the intended atmosphere, it’s nice that such an option exists for those that aren’t quite as brave as myself (Author’s note: I’m a complete coward. Ignore my showboating). It’s weird, because I don’t think that the game is perfect. It had a couple of minor problems that got on my nerves, and there were points where I found myself getting a bit frustrated or losing interest somewhat. And yet, none of that seems to matter. I’ve listened to the soundtrack twice as I’ve written this review. I keep thinking about the dark, overgrown hallways of PATHOS-II, the horrid creatures that stalked me to terrifying effect, and the completely obvious, yet totally unexpected ending. SOMA is a game that made me question what actually defines me as a unique person, pretentious as that may sound. It’s a game that I am very quickly developing an obsession with; I even found myself thinking about it in the middle of my university classes. Despite the fact that I don’t really think there’s any reason to play through it again due to the linearity of the experience, I feel compelled to give it another shot, just to see if there are things I missed early on that hinted at later developments. It’s been a long time since a game has been able to do that to me. SOMA made me cry, scream, feel sick, and think, yet through it all, it remained one of the most consistently enjoyable and absorbing experiences I’ve had in recent memory, and one that I hope will never fade away.