SOMA Review

Lost at Sea

You open your eyes and find yourself in a world completely foreign to you — a world completely submerged under the water. You get up, start to explore, and find that the world before you is filled with intrigue, mystery, suspense, and a sense of wonder. What is this place? Why are you here? What technological advancement could entertain the possibility of a fruitful life within the deep sea? You have to find answers.

SOMA, Amnesia creators Frictional Games’ latest title, throws you into a world subject to a sense of true mystery. Set on PATHOS-II, an underwater research facility, you play as Simon Jarrett, an average, everyday man who’s somehow found himself in a situation he can’t quite comprehend. As he makes his way around the various sections of PATHOS-II, a question solely emerges very early on — where are the people?

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SOMA’s introduction to the world of PATHOS-II and its surroundings feels almost alien in a way, but as you make your way around the beautifully crafted and expertly designed underwater facility, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder and admiration. The world of SOMA is absolutely stunning, and navigating the nooks and cranny’s of this submerged landscape completely isolated from the living world above makes for an excellent contrast. The first couple of hours of SOMA almost feels like watching Ridley Scott’s Alien for the first time — you’re thrown into this world that feels like it’s a living, breathing thing.

Combining this with a story that’s well written makes for a mysterious and often insightful look in to a universe that’s completely foreign to the one we live in, yet brings up philosophical questions that are apparent in today’s modern society. The idea of the replication between body and mind, machines taking a human state of mind, and the sense of belonging versus the sense of loneliness are all explored within SOMA’s nine-to-ten hour story and, along with the world created by Frictional Games, is by far the best part of the experience. The world-building Frictional Games has done makes the universe of SOMA feel real and entirely believable, and integrating that with a fascinating story gives the game a real sense of depth and wonderment throughout.

It’s unfortunate that this sense of wonderment almost comes to a screeching halt as you further progress through the game’s story, as you make acquaintances and the horror elements of SOMA start to come to fruition, the game can ultimately get rather frustrating. SOMA’s enemies are fairly diverse, yet they all do the same thing — patrol a prescribed area as you make your way around them. You’re armed with no tools to defeat these enemies or even push them away, so you have to rely on sneaking past them without alerting them to your presence. Enemies in SOMA are very perceptive to sound, and accidentally running into a couple of pots or glasses on the ground can be the difference between getting through to the next area or dying.

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Disappointingly, it feels like Frictional designed all of the great elements of SOMA — the story, the world, the sense of mystery — first, and then decided to throw in the enemies as an afterthought this time around. This ultimately makes the game feel somewhat jarring and a chore to get through, and I feel that the sections with enemies just don’t quite hold up with the other elements of the game. It feels like they’re two completely different components of two different games and don’t work as one cohesive thing.

That’s not to say that the monsters and the experience they lend to the game aren’t scary, because the beginning is especially terrifying — those first few encounters are genuinely frightening, but the game can become extremely tedious and uninteresting following that.

Frictional’s horror pedigree does show through in SOMA, and there are a couple of sections in the game in particular that lend to the experience extremely well by the way of effective and exciting scares, but as an overarching major component of the game, it feels jarring and the continuity between the exploration and survival horror sections of the game just don’t feel quite right.

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent was defined by its terrifying scares, and while SOMA certainly entertains quite a few throughout the game’s duration, it remains more grounded in the science fiction genre than it does in survival horror. There isn’t quite enough diversity in the way SOMA utilizes its enemies to really make things feel scary, and by the second half of the game I felt quite relaxed and acquainted with the enemies presented. Interestingly, these enemy-filled sequences are fairly sparse, and that contributes to having them feel more like a chore to get through as you make your way to the next part of the story.

While SOMA’s world-building is phenomenal, its score and sound design play a major role in crafting a grounded, believable world. PATHOS-II is an entirely desolate and isolated place, and you can hear absolutely everything going on around you, from footsteps, to computers running, to machines in the background — the very minute things of SOMA can be heard even from a distance, and that makes for an atmospheric experience that lends itself well to the science fiction genre. The horror elements are further reinforced spectacularly through the use of excellent music cues and sound design, and especially early on in the game the sense of being alone on this facility really gets to you.

Overall

Frictional Games’ SOMA is a bit of a mixed bag. Fans of Amnesia: The Dark Descent will be disappointed to know that SOMA is just not entirely built upon scares this time around, and these sequences themselves feel like a completely different component when compared to the game’s excellent story and universe. The sense of discovery is at the forefront of what defines SOMA, and while it might not be what I was entirely expecting, the game’s universe is brilliant, and Frictional’s questioning of what it means to be human is the by far the most compelling part of the game.

Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4

A review code was supplied by the publisher.

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