*THIS REVIEW CONTAINS VERY MINOR SPOILERS. The author tried his best to keep many factors under wraps while keeping the review informative.
There are a lot of questions about life and death, and what comes after. SOMA, the first person horror title from Frictional Games, brings these questions and concepts to the table in some unique ways. Way under the ocean’s surface, in a world that has crippled beneath the weight of a comets impact, awakes you. Disoriented and afraid, you must work your way through the underwater research station known as Pathos II. Taking control of protagonist Simon, you will unravel a deep rooted story that ask questions and those answers will certainly vary from player to player. In this underwater graveyard, death, despair, and a bit of hope wait to be avoided or embraced.
SOMA is a first-person, narrative driven horror title that brings players into an immersive and detailed nightmare. You are Simon Jarett, and your life is not the one you are familiar with. Not anymore. A recent chain of events sets him in Pathos II. The station was originally designed as a research facility, one that also harbored a massive space gun of sorts that could launch things, well, into space. Built up of several hubs and locations, it’s safe to say at one point Pathos II was something to be awed at. But that was long ago, as it is now falling apart, and harbors some of the earths last “living” humans. Blacked out halls filled with an unidentifiable growth twist and turn everyway, lights flicker, sections gave way to the water and immense pressure, and the atmosphere is dense and unsettling. You are not safe here. You are not alone, in both good and bad ways.
Upon your delirious travel, you run into multiple robotic beings. Though basic in appearance, these robots sound and react as if human, but are clearly not. They even deny that they appear as robots, which is quite unsettling, since they become angry, or even seem to feel pain in other situations. This is one of the earliest tests of your moral delegations. If it is not human, technically speaking, should I feel remorse? I did, I knew some hard decisions had to be made for progression reasons, but it does not mean it made them less unenjoyable. One of these people is not like the rest though, and she very well can be the deciding factor between survival and death if you can accept some of the facts she brings to the table. Her name is Catherine, and at one point she was a researcher on Pathos. She was designated with conducting some extremely advanced brain scans, which initially were used to have the conciseness of those being scanned transported into the working class robots so that tasks beyond their limits and outside the safety of the facilities could be performed safely. Now in a digital state, she is still very aware of who she was, right up to the point she was scanned. It’s very complex, and so are the notions that follow, but having her along (she gets transported into your handheld device) is an enlightening partnership. She, as well as many interactive objects, help enlighten the player as to what happened and is currently happening. I do not want to go into much detail, as the story pacing and developments are the reason to play. Just know that the complexities are deep, but the pacing helps unravel them in unique and successful ways. And those that don’t mind popping in every room and reading everything they can will be the most enlightened of them all.
Going into this game, I thought it was going to be pretty damn scary. Those around me who had played it alluded to that, but I had to find out for myself. While the narrative portions of the game are damn good, I felt a bit underwhelmed in the spooky department. Don’t get me wrong, the atmosphere is killer and the mysterious beings that can kill you are freaking creepy, but the frequency of seeing them left me underwhelmed and often wondering where all the scary things were. There’s no combat, which is not an issue, but there is also a safe mode in the Xbox One version that makes it so the monsters can’t kill you. While a nice addition for some, I avoided it as I feared it would add to the issue at hand. The issue being that there are just too many big gaps of not having any threat that it kind of gets you out of the zone in my opinion. The other disappointing aspect for me was the sometimes sluggish tasks presented. In the middle parts of the game, your tasks felt like fillers instead of keeping the pacing on track. I just am not a fan of having back to back to back fetch quests, but I suppose it makes sense considering the situations you get put into.
As I mentioned, the atmosphere is really good. The darkness in certain sections breeds claustrophobia, and easily induces a state of panic. Musical twangs evoke feelings of fear and discovery, the enemy (known as the Wau [pronounced “wow”]) make some terrifying noises, and the computer noises give some crazy Resident Evil/ Dino Crisis nostalgic vibes. The team did a great job here, making you feel immersed in many ways, even with story driven nuances like having to go back to get your handheld that you naturally forgot elsewhere in a tense moment. What holds this back however are some technical issues. The first is when you actually do see the odd actual human, their lip syncs do not look natural. It is bad that the lipless robots are the more human figures in the game. There are also quite a bit of audio overlaps when the game catches itself loading, resulting in a sentence being restarted half way through. Speaking of load times, the initial ones at launch are pretty long, and additionally it is incredibly noticeable when a new section is loading, with the game slowing down pretty significantly. You also get the occasional texture issues, and have some objects mesh with walls amongst other minor bugs.
What keeps it all together though is the overarching story. It has quite the bittersweet ending, but it is worth seeing through to the end. SOMA has some very high points, like exploring the THETA station, and much of the story comes about in such revealing ways that it’s hard not to ask questions but remained satisfied with what answers you derive as you continue on. Visually SOMA looks pretty solid, and sounds great too with both the atmospheric direction and voiceover work pulling their weight. While it may not always run as smooth, it’s never hindered the game to make it unplayable. It feels like it has some inspirations from Bioshock/System Shock/ Dead Space/ Resident Evil which all make sense, and as a package it does deliver. While not reaching the height of my expectations, SOMA is still a valuable title in the genre and certainly worth a play for fans of the horror/walking simulation games. It’s one of those rare games that makes you think on a deeper level, beyond what many dare to do, and it does it in such a great way that is worth discussing.
Final Score: 7.5/10
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