It’s very hard to talk in-depth about SOMA without spoilers but I’ve made it my goal to do that in this review. If you want to see the game for yourself in all its spoilery glory, I did a full Let’s Play of it for Extra Life 2015 over on YouTube.
My dislike of anything horror is well documented but it always makes for some interesting fundraising stretch goals for my yearly Extra Life campaigns. I like these because they not only help me raise more money, they force me to step outside my comfort zone which I think we all as gamers should do once in a while. In 2012, such a goal forced me to play through Frictional Games‘ last nightmare factory, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It was terrifying without a doubt but I actually found the whole package lacking compared to many. SOMA, their latest effort for the PC and PS4, shifts from a Lovecraft-ian nightmare to a sci-fi one, with a high-minded story that asks many philosophical and moral questions about the nature of human consciousness, identity and what happens when those get thrown into unexpected states of flux. This story is what makes up for the fact that there isn’t much actual game to be found.
Frictional’s horror formula is well worn. The core concepts are that you can’t fight enemies, you can only run and hide from them, staring at them for too long inhibits your character’s abilities and you can interact with many objects in the environment, though only a few are critical. They’ve stuck to this method for every game they’ve made and while it’s admirable for how unconventional it is compared to mainstream titles, it’s also getting old. It made more sense in Amnesia: The Dark Descent than it does in SOMA, where it really feels like they shoehorned these mechanics in because they already had tech for them and didn’t know how to mix things up. It’s not that they don’t work, it’s just that it feels very familiar and some more variety would have been nice. Suffice is to say, if you’ve played Frictional titles before, you’ll know how everything works going in.
Even with these mechanics, there isn’t a lot in the way of what is traditionally considered game play in SOMA. Really, it fits more closely in with what has been become known as the narrative exploration genre, often referred to by its detractors as “walking simulators.” Experiencing the world and the story is the first and foremost priority of this genre and while there may be mechanics, they’re often few and limited. The two biggest draws for me in games are mechanics and immersive worlds so this type of game can definitely appeal to me but very few do. I’ve slammed on walking simulators before and had many passionate arguments about them. I’m not one of those people who will say they aren’t games, I believe they are. However, I have very high standards for them because to me, making one is saying they you believe your story and writing to be so incredible that they don’t need good mechanics to back them up. Most of the big name exploration games have simply not been able to live up to this in my opinion and I think many of the critical darlings were so not because of the games themselves but because of who was making them and the subjects they often ham-fistedly tackled.
SOMA is one of the few narrative exploration games I’ve played where there story and delivery of it backed up the fact that you don’t actually do very much besides move from place to place, avoid the occasional enemy and solve the occasional basic puzzle. I hated Gone Home because it’s story was cliché, solitary, linear, hurried and so predictable, you know the core of it very quickly after you started playing. Even if you’re thorough, Gone Home can be beaten in less than 2 hours. SOMA takes at least 8, not because it’s padded–though it is a bit in places–but because it takes its time.
You’re thrown many twists and curve balls that will keep you guessing and surprised right up until past the credits but there are also long periods where it lets the pressure off and encourages you to take in the environment or to get some discussion based exposition with other characters. They give you a lot to think about and it’s clear the designers wanted you to have the time to think while you played, not just after you’ve stopped. There are several points where you’re presented with a choice to make and while these unfortunately have no impact on how things turn out in the end, they also feel like they weren’t put there for that purpose but to actually make you question your own moral compass before and after you made them. They exist not to service game play but just to make you think. For me, few games can pull this off the way SOMA did. There were several times I thought I know what the story was about and where it was going and every time, I was completely wrong. It’s an achievement that SOMA was able to continually pull this off for over 8 hours, even if at the end, there are a couple of sub plots that begin and end quickly and aren’t fully explained.
Perhaps the most surprising thing to me is that SOMA wasn’t all that scary. It had me jump several times but not to the degree even Amnesia did and certainly not like Outlast did last year. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few jump scares and it deals in very disturbing imagery and subject matter throughout but it’s not nearly as terrifying as I expected from a Frictional title. I’m glad for this because it allowed me to further enjoy the narrative but had I not played this for charity, I likely would have avoided it because it was marketed as a horror game and that would have been a shame.
Of course, a good story heavy game needs a fantastic environment to tell it in and SOMA delivers here as well. Things are dark, cold and depressing but in that metallic sci-fi way that I find more interesting than endless stone corridors like in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Not having to rely on historical designs allowed Frictional to be more creative with their uses of colour and materials. The world of SOMA is a depressing one to be sure–especially as you start to learn what’s happening outside of it–but it also has a vibrancy and variety that made it much more interesting for me. It’s not a nice place to be but it’s a very interesting place to be. This is complemented by generally very good voice acting. I would say the main protagonist is the weakest of the lot but not by much.
I played SOMA on the PC and from a technical end, it’s pretty good but has some issues. Frictional Games uses their own engine and it’s not super well optimised. While it looks very nice for an indie title, it doesn’t look AAA, yet ran like it was, often having a hard time maintaining 60 frames per second on my PC which is miles above the recommended specs. In their latest engine, they did manage to remove Amnesia’s many loading screens but SOMA stutters badly when caching in a new level. I also had to restart the game because after a while, the frame rate plummeted and didn’t recover. To be fair, I did play the entire thing in one session so that issue probably won’t affect many. Still, I have AAA games on my system that look better and run better. I have not tried the PS4 version but it targets 30 frames per second and apparently has a lot of trouble holding at that as well. For games like this, high performance isn’t explicitly necessary but it would be nice.
I made SOMA my Extra Life 2015 stretch goal expecting it to be another terrifying horror game in a sci-fi setting. What I got was only occasionally terrifying but also the kind of deep, thoughtful, high-minded story you don’t see in almost any mainstream games and which many indie games try and usually fail to realise. SOMA made me really sit back and think in a way only a handful of games ever have and I continued to for days after I finished it. The experience will stick with me for a long time and for much as I love this medium, I can’t say that about many titles.
If you’re looking for deep, dark storytelling and immersion, don’t get hung up on SOMA’s horror pretensions and give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised and you might be too. I can certainly say that I won’t be immediately writing off future Frictional Games titles just because they’re marketed as horror. That’s something I never thought I’d say.