Developed by Frictional Games
Released 22 September 2015
Genre: Survival horror
No spoilers to be found here!
SOMA is a video game that tackles complex philosophical questions about artificial intelligence, all taking place in a detailed science fiction setting that is literally dripping with atmosphere. The game is made by the studio that created arguably one of the greatest horror games ever made, “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”. I don’t know about you, but the sound of that makes my mouth water and if you share my love of science fiction, I’m sure you can relate. But is the game actually good? Well, let me explain.
SOMA starts out with our main protagonist Simon Jarret in the year 2015. After undergoing a quick medical brain scan, he finds himself waking up 100 years in the future in the ruined underwater research facility PATHOS-II. Since the game is heavily story-based I will not go on any further, but rest assured, it’s an amazing tale that touches on themes of human existence, AI and the value of life. Just like all the great works of science fiction, it doesn’t force the audience to think a certain way, but leaves everything open to interpretation, which in turn makes it more powerful.
The story is the biggest strength of SOMA, I honestly think that it alone could rank amongst similar narrative works like 2001, Blade Runner and Moon. However, when you look at the other aspects of the game, it sadly stumbles a bit. The character of Simon starts out well enough as young man working in a book store, haunted by recent tragic events. But as the story progresses you feel that Simon doesn’t react realistically to some events, instead coming of as a bit bored. I don’t know if it’s the writing or the voice-actor, but Simon, while overall a good main character, leaves some things to be desired. Early in the game you meet Catherine, a researcher at the station, who becomes your sidekick. While it is refreshing to have someone to talk in a game by Frictional, Catherine is one of the game’s highlights thanks to great execution. Even though most of her dialogue consists of exposition, she comes across as a genuine person and has great chemistry with Simon.
You know that feeling when you turn down the lights, bury yourself under blankets and just disappear into whatever world of your choosing? The same feeling found me when I was walking around PATHOS-II. Not so much Rapture, more like the Nostromo mixed with the station from The Abyss. The atmosphere of the place is absolutely incredible and is so immersive it’s literally scary. Much like in Bioshock, you go from one area of PATHOS-II to another. But where Raptures different locales all felt distinct, the areas of SOMA are all too similar to one another, which makes the place feel a lot smaller than it actually is. That really is a shame, since the environments are masterfully crafted. Sometimes though, you get to walk the ocean floor, a nice change of pace. These portions of the game are good, but become a bit stale after a while. The ocean is a bit more open then the buildings, but it makes it easier to get lost. Since you walk very slow, it sometimes becomes a bit boring after aimlessly walking around trying to find the correct place to enter the station over and over.
If you have ever played a game by Frictional Games, the gameplay of SOMA will feel very familiar. You walk around dark areas, find items and texts, all the while staying away from whatever lurks in the shadows. You have no way of defending yourself and therefore need to resort to hiding when spotted. Even though it’s very similar to their previous games, it still fits the gameplay and forces you to explore every room of PATHOS-II, which is a good thing. Audio logs and texts are rewarding to find and helps to inform the player of what happened to the station. But if you compare this to Amnesia, this back story is significantly more complex, but spread out over a similar lengthy game. The result is that you get a general impression of the back story, but it is still very hard to keep track of all the different characters. I also don’t like that the collectible items from previous games have been removed. It makes the exploration less engaging than it could have been, since most drawers and shelves contain nothing of interest.
Then we come to the scary bits. I personally think that the way Frictional handled Amnesia’s monsters is nothing short of brilliant. That’s why it saddens me to say that the monster encounters are the worst parts of SOMA. Not that the monsters are badly designed, there are lot more different beasts in SOMA compared to Amnesia, but it just isn’t scary to face them. One of the main problems with them is that you simply get to see the monsters far to much, to the point where they aren’t scary any more, just an obstacle in the way. Since you can’t do anything to defend yourself and have to hide and wait for the monsters to go away, the monster sections quickly become a chore. While sometimes scary at a first encounter with a new monster, you quickly understand how they work and slowly sneak around them, which breaks up the pace of the game in multiple sections. If the monster encounters in a survival horror game comes of as a chore, you have failed with your game. This sadly carries over into the narrative, where the game tries to implement a reason to why the monsters exists into the plot. It never feels like it belongs in the story, and in the end comes of as a contrived reason to scare the player, “because that’s what happens in a game made by Frictional Games”. The studio should either have scrapped the monsters entirely and only keep the exploration part and maybe add a few more things to collect. The other way would have been to better intertwine the monster-plot with the main plot and make the monster encounters actually scary. What we got was something in the middle, not very scary, but feels like chore to do.
In the end, SOMA feels like a mixed bag. On one hand you have a story that could be considered a science fiction masterpiece, an incredibly rich setting that transports you to another world complete with good characters and an interesting back story. But then you have the watered down exploration, the monster encounters and the forced attempts to justify their existence in the overarching plot. In the end SOMA is a game best watched rather than played, which isn’t a great merit for a video game.
Cover image source: http://www.technobuffalo.com/