The latest horror title by Frictional Games, SOMA released late September of this year with a bang. Since the original Amnesia: The Dark Descent, horror enthusiasts have been eagerly awaiting what terrors lurk under the sea. Forcing players to grapple with morality, defining humanity and survival at all costs, SOMA is a newly imagined trip into the dark psyche we’ve come to expect from Frictional.
A terrible truth.
SOMA harkens back to the original Bioshock, providing all of the familiar damp and dark of a city being swallowed by the sea. Plagued by a rogue A.I. with a twisted take on it’s directives to “Keep humanity alive at all costs”, our hero must determine his fate among the dead and dying. There’s only one shot at survival, and it hinges on an insane plan involving a space cannon and ones’ definition of life.
The story follows Simon Jarret deep under the ocean in the remains of Pathos II, the science research laboratory with a dark secret. As the story progresses through the wreckage and horrors that await in the dark, the true depth of the game is revealed. The world around Simon is filled with pulsing tendrils, dead technicians, and machines who think they are human. The more is revealed about the true state of affairs, the more you wish you didn’t know.
SOMA sets the bar once again for a notable achievement in gaming, for it’s story alone. There are few games that leave the player breathless and confused and stressed at the end of each play session, eager to dive back in, but this is one of those games. Though a relatively short play through, SOMA is devoid of cheap jump scares and instead turns attention to atmosphere and morally questionable decision making opportunities. Very rarely are games able to call players back for a second play through, especially in this genre, but in this regard SOMA succeeds.
A first person exploration game, similar to Amnesia, players are expected to run or hide while solving puzzles and unwrapping the truth of the universe. True to form, SOMA remains stoically creepy throughout, without feeling like a forced march through hell. Though the game is not free roam, the infinite void of the ocean around the player removes the feeling of being on rails in a positive way. There’s something about the atmosphere and art style in the game that provides a realistic feeling of being compressed in an underwater submersible station: claustrophobics beware.
Though the creatures in SOMA are somewhat as predictable and lose their edge after prolonged exposure to Simon, Frictional has thrown in a curve ball or two. Most monsters in a horror game operate on the correct assumption that the less you actually see of them, the scarier they are. However, the monsters don’t fade or disappear around corners like in Amnesia, and there are MANY of them. Because you can’t kill them, you are forced to get creative with distractions and hiding techniques. In making the creatures much more tangible than other horror titles, theres a palpable fear of being found at all times.
There are only a few places SOMA falls short on an otherwise incredible adventure. The game only runs for around 20 hours, which given the nature of horror titles is not entirely unsurprising. Additionally, a puzzle will cause undue stress simply due to the lack of instruction from the game and with no real inventory to speak of, rarely does a puzzle call for too much back and forth between areas. However, there are a fair number of “fetch quests”, and particularly obtuse problems to solve that distract from the horrors surrounding Simon.
Similarly, unless playing on a harder difficultly, the death mechanic serves to remove some of the element of fear. Simon will get attacked by a monster that is faster and stronger than he, black out and hit the floor, only to wake a few moments later alone again but badly damaged and finding it difficult to walk straight. While this does allow the player to escape certain impossible scenarios otherwise, it sometimes will allow the monster to spawn again and then much more easily chase Simon down due to suffering from having his legs broken.
Having said that, as a single player horror adventure, SOMA is one of the best in recent years. It absolutely is worth playing from start to finish, and like a good book will be hard to pry away from. The twists and turns will leave you questioning and seeking more information, even when it beckons you down a hallway to almost certain death.