Frictional Games made their mark on the survival horror game with Amnesia: Dark Descent, a game that many consider to be one of the best in the genre. SOMA is the first game they have developed since then and looks to take on the genre again with a brand new story and setting. Does lightning strike twice? Will SOMA find players screaming from a mixture of joy and fear? Or disappointment?
SOMA stars Simon Jarrett, a seemingly average guy living in Toronto in the year 2015, who seems to be suffering from some sort of brain condition. One day he wakes up to a seemingly normal day and heads in to a research facility to undertake a brain scan. However, that’s where things take a turn from normal, from strange and confusing. After the brain scan is completed, the helmet doing the scan lifts up and Simon finds he is no longer in overly-friendly Canada but alone in a strange, foreboding rundown scientific station. After some exploring he discovers he is on the PATHOS-II, a research station located on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, almost ninety years in the future. To top it all off, there are weird part-biological part-machine creatures roaming around that will try to kill you on sight! You now set out to figure out how you got there, what has happened to all the people and the station and to survive.
Without giving away what happens, the plot is genuinely interesting. As you explore PATHOS-II you will find various recordings and computers that help tell the tale of what happened, both to you and the base. It is paced in such a way that keeps you wanting to push forward to the next plot point and fight your fears to explore optional parts of the base to discover extra pieces of lore. Ultimately, what makes the plot most interesting are the ethical and moral questions the game brings up constantly. It helps elevate the plot from being something you enjoy during your time with the game, to something you may find yourself thinking about well after the credits finish. It is worth mentioning that this isn’t a game with multiple endings. There is one linear plot, with some choices you can make, but no matter what you will get the same ending and ultimately, you won’t be inclined to replay unless you feel you missed a lot of optional plot-points (and don’t want to just google them) or you want to show the game off the game to someone else. It also makes you feel like any choices you do make in the game are ultimately meaningless, which may frustrate some, but I feel lends to the story the developers were trying to tell.
The game plays as a first person adventure title. You will find yourself walking around various parts of the PATHOS-II as well as a few segments in the ocean outside the base. The game follows a fairly repetitive formula throughout of having to go a specific part of the base to do a set task, journeying to the place, finding out when you get there that there is some problem, and you then have to go solve some puzzles and avoid some monsters in order to obtain some MacGuffin to resolve the issue and progress. While this formula works, it is just a shame that it sticks to it through the entire game. As for the puzzles, it is a mixed bag. While some are clever and fun or matched up with monster encounters to create a very stressful vibe, others just feel meaningless given how simple they are. You will find yourself either overlooking the solution by overthinking the situation or solving it in a matter of seconds.
Control wise the games mechanics felt a bit clunky. I was playing the game on a PS4 and often I found myself struggling to turn wheels, push levers or press buttons – particularly if I was in a rush. The game just seemed to require very specific movements and aim at specific points when performing actions that just didn’t feel intuitive. I was able to have a few people I know also play the game and this was often the first thing they complained about, or at least reinforcing it wasn’t just me not being able to wrap my head around the controls. There were also a few situations where the game had some (fortunately not game-breaking) glitches, such as when Simon was stuck carrying an item in his right hand that normally only popped up in certain context sensitive situations or when he respawned in an area of the map you clearly were not meant to go to and required some awkward jumping up a stone ledge to get back on track.
The monster encounters I found to be genuinely terrifying. The designs of the monsters combined with the sounds of heavy breathing and dripping ooze genuinely creates a tense atmosphere as soon as they enter the room. You can’t fight the monsters, so you can either sprint to get away or attempt to sneak around then by crouching behind objects and using the leaning mechanic to peer around corners. For the majority of the monsters, if they manage to attack you, you will be knocked unconscious, and you will then wake up at the same place they caught you and the monster will have moved to another section of the map. Having sustained damage you will limp around and your vision is blurry and you will remain like that until you find one of the single-use healing stations. However, if you are caught by the monster another one or two times you will die and be taken back to the last checkpoint. On one hand, this is great as it reduces frustration, especially if you are already partway through solving a puzzle or carrying something from point A to B. However, it can be abusable in certain situations, allowing you to sacrifice one hit near an objective so the monster is moved away, removing the need to sneak. Fortunately there are still times where sneaking is mandatory as the creatures will take you out in a single hit.
The graphics ultimately they do the job of setting the isolated and creepy atmosphere despite a few blurry textures from time to time. Lighting in particular is fairly well done. The sound design compliments this with plenty of clangs and heavy breathing, making you feel like you are constantly being followed. The voice acting is also quite serviceable, while I don’t imagine it will win any awards, I do think they actors do a decent job of conveying the characters intended emotions, at least enough to keep you from being removed from the game.
If you are in the market for a decent horror game, there are a lot worse options than SOMA. It doesn’t deviate far from the groundwork set out by Frictional Games’ prior work or do much to expand the genre. Nevertheless, it tells a worthwhile tale that poses you with some hard-hitting ethical questions, some interesting puzzles and is accompanied with some truly terrifying moments.
Evocative plot, Terrifying scenes
Clunky controls, Lackluster progression formula