For those who have children may know, there will come a time when they ask the question 'What happens when we die?' This question is and has been one of the most fundamental questions to our species since we became sentient and gained the ability to see ourselves. As we grow we start to see people die, people on the news and maybe even close family members. Where do we go? These questions gave birth to religion, a convenient (but at the time necessary) belief that gives hope (and control) that death is not our end but just the beginning. Loved ones we lost will greet us on the shores of paradise and we shall live for eternity, yay. If it is not clear yet I am an agnostic and while do not subscribe to any religion per say I live in the hope we, in fact, don't end with this reality: after all eternity is a long time.
Ok so if I sound a little thoughtful and maybe even a touch philosophical it is because I have just finished playing the latest game to be released from developer Frictional: SOMA. This developer has previously brought us the excellent psychological adventure game Amnesia: the dark decent. This is a none spoiler review in the sense that I do not discuss the major plot anchor points or twists, however, I will be discussing the general setting for the game and some of the games mechanisms. These may be considered spoilers in themselves so please be aware of this. So without further ado let us take a look at SOMA.
Kansas is going bye bye
In this game you step into the shoes of Simon Jarret (Jared Zeus), an ordinary and likeable chap living in Toronto, Canada. It quickly becomes clear you are the survivor of a car accident in which your girlfriend died and you sustained severe brain damage. Within a short space of time, you learn that you have an appointment with a doctor who is hoping to help you with your injuries.
As you walk about your apartment getting ready to see the doctor you get a chance to learn how objects work in this game. Most superfluous objects can be picked up, manipulated and thrown. If you have spent any time in Fallout 3/4 you will know the score although in this game it does feel a little more intuitive. Drawers, cabinets and levers call all be manipulated by holding interact and then moving the mouse in the desired direction. Any items you can read or view stay in place but can be viewed and rotated up close. I really like this system and adds a degree of weight to interactions, although I can see it not being everyone's cup of tea.
While having your scan at the aforementioned appointment the screen suddenly goes blank and the next thing you know you awake somewhere very different. I suspect most of us would be more than a little vexed at suddenly waking up in a strange, dark room: it's at this point the quality of the voice acting starts to become apparent. Simon is constantly talking to himself as he starts to poke around this strange environment and make sense of what happened to him.
The DNA of horror
If I were asked which games SOMA reminds me of the most three jump out right away, Bioshock, System Shock 2 and Alien Isolation. In Bioshock, you arrive at Rapture after the fact and you are in the main putting the pieces of events back together. There is the other obvious comparison of being trapped in a crippled underwater structure with many deformed monstrosities that want to do bad things to you. The major difference being in Bioshock you could fight back and here we see the similarities between SOMA and Alien Isolation because Simon is pretty much defenceless throughout the entire game. This one fact makes facing the terrors stalking the corridors of the base all the more horrifying and when you do make a loud sound the only thing you can do is run. I had some pretty tense moments in Alien Isolation but you knew what was chasing you and what it would do (so still pretty bad). Here the unknown elements of the foe you face add fear in buckets. While we are doing comparisons I have to say I also saw hints of a film called Event Horizon in the way the corridors and chambers are designed. Often you will see a well lit room at the end of a corridor which is in almost total darkness. It affected me so much I found myself always closing doors behind me and putting my coffee cup down quietly without thinking about it. The underwater sections of the game are what you could pretty much describe as my own personal hell as I have always had a phobia of deep water. There is one section near the end of the game that literally had me screaming like a little schoolgirl, you will know which part when you come across it.
Early on in the game, you meet Catherine (voiced by the extremely talented Nell Mooney) who for the duration of the trip is your companion and guide. Unlike you, Catherine was part of the team working on the station you now find yourself trapped on so she is able to help with opening doors and moving equipment. For reasons I won't go into this is not a conventional buddy situation which plays into some fascinating dialogue between the two, I would say it is at least on a par with the acting in Firewatch. You do meet other 'beings' along the way and some are copies of human consciousness that have been fused into machines. The problem is these people are not actually aware of their situation and so on top of the horrific scene you also feel immense pity. In fact, the game often lays sadistic choices out in front of you and depending on how you choose this in turn can have an influence on how the game ends for you.
Ok just putting the story and narrative on freeze frame, how does the game actually play? Well, your overall objective is to move through the various buildings of a larger complex, this does at points involve heading out of airlocks into the murky depths. I have to say the various puzzles you come up against never felt like carbon copies of the last. A few were actually very complicated and dare I say the solutions seemed a little vague. However, I actually liked how the game never holds your hand or gives you a free pass. Each section of this journey tested my metal in ways I didn't always see coming.
The various enemies you come across are deadly but as I've mentioned, you are not able to take them on, in fact apart from one puzzle there are no weapons at all. Many of the foes you must get past are blind and so will only attack you when they hear you. Sounds easy until you remember that these rooms (and floors) are strewn with clutter: one wrong step and that's you dead. You can also use this to your advantage by luring enemies away from certain places, needless to say, I've spent entire sections hardly breathing. Once again the developers play with your nerves by forcing you to make sound (opening a very loud and slow moving pressure door for example) and then scamper away.
Many reviews have mentioned the 'light' stealth mechanics as being one of the games downsides and to a point, I'd agree they are basic. However I would also say that the game doesn't need a complicated hide mechanic and in fact, I think this would have added unnecessary clutter to the experience. This game is not about combat or excellent cover systems and I applaud the Frictional for knowing their own style.
The sound in SOMA is some of the best I've seen in recent years and I think deserves special mention. My theory is that true horror comes not from what you can see and but what you can't. The way sound plays with you in SOMA is exceptional and even until the last hour of play had my nerves frazzled. Often the very structure of the base sounds like it's wailing out in pain and combined with a plethora of disturbing visual effects there is never a single moment you feel safe. It is clear the team that implemented the sound spent a lot of time working on how objects would sound when moved. Kick a bottle of water for example and you could hear it slowly roll across the metallic floor. The way sound works with what you are seeing in games like this is paramount and Frictional totally nailed it.
There is a lot more I could tell you about SOMA but I'm not going to, because I feel it is one of them games that the less you know going in the better the experience. This game covers many psychological, philosophical and moral topics: words we don't usually see associated with gaming. Yet more and more these days we see developers using this interactive medium to make us think and push what we understand about human consciousness. In fact by the time you have come to the game's final conclusion you will have pondered the very essence of what it means to be human. If you enjoyed any of the games I have mentioned in this review (or even not) then I have no hesitation in recommending this title to you, it is thoroughly excellent from start to finish. If you do play SOMA just make sure you do so in a dark room with a good pair of headphones and don't forget to wait until the end of the credits before you turn it off.
Thank you for reading my review for SOMA, I hope you enjoyed it. If you don't already please follow me on Twitter @riggedforepic or if you wish to contact me directly you can do so at Riggedforepic@gmail.com