Game Name: SOMA (2015)
Developer: Frictional Games (makers of Penumbra and Amnesia: the Dark Descent)
Platform: PC, PS4 (reviewed on PC)
Categories: Single Player, Sci-Philosophy, Morally Gray, Story-Centric, Mild Scares, Stubborn Stealth, Dread, 1st Person Walking Simulator, Environmental Puzzles, Mind Fuck, and Definitively Immersive
May Appeal To: existentialists, thinkers, technophiles, adventure gamers looking for more than a casual juant, indie fans, mold-breakers, and people who want a satisfying story
May Repulse: action-seekers, game manipulators, those that require a high degree of polish or “mainstream” titles, the shallow, scaredy-cats, and people who want satisfying gameplay
Comparable To: similar tone and setting to Bioshock, less freedom and tamer than Alien Isolation, strikingly similar to Amnesia with a heavier narrative, bad guys by the Slenderman School of Not Looking at Shit That Kills You, Myst-style environmental interaction and awareness
Learning Curve: 5 minutes will get you mobile and opening cabinets like a champ, though the scattered puzzles may take you 5-10 minutes each to figure out what SOMA demands before you’re allowed to venture past the next steel-reinforced bulkhead
Game Length: I have a feeling it’s literally impossible to exceed 10 hours if you don’t have a weak bladder or a tendency to walk away without turning off the console/computer
Difficulty: Low for the overall journey, mid for puzzles, and a confounding question mark for evading patrols that never quite reveal what triggers their one-hit kill ire
Mastery: For the most part, the sequence of button presses and objectives are predictable and unavoidable, though I suppose there is a degree of mastery to peeking around corners before traipsing off to the next glowing doorswitch.
Story: I feel ham-stringed by the fact that the slightest discussion could offset the eventual (and frequent) “big reveals” rail-gunned into orbit by this game’s stellar story; and since this is one of few elements truly working for this title, I’ll avoid undercutting the developer’s success in rooting a cohesive plot in familiar sci-fi tropes while presenting fresh views in a determinedly organic and unpretentious manner. I mean, it’s not Bioshock Infinite we’re talking about here – SOMA has a naturally-developing story ark that balances personal significance with outrageously hypothetical constructs manufactured for the creatively jaded persona in us all who believes to have had seen/read/played everything. I profess to being thoroughly against the characters’ risks in achieving the primary objective and outright spiteful of our virtual husk’s alternatingly lifeless/petulant monologues, but the complete tale is simultaneously relevant, abstract, disheartening, uplifting, one-of-a-kind, familiar, naggingly open-ended, and yet wholly satisfying. I walked away with questions, but ones directed at modern convention and not the game developers themselves, who certainly delivered the goods with this one. Early on, I was furiously annoyed at the prospect that the game belittled comprehension as a simulated dream sequence to be later tied up with a pretty bow. This is not that type of game, thankfully, and my approval grew increasingly more emphatic the deeper this ride took me.
Presentation: I have a hard time pigeon-holing the production values of this game, which never truly obscures that there are less than 210 accredited names after the final scene (the majority of which are voice actors and playtesters). For instance, SOMA has stylized professional concept art, though these are also used as panning cutscenes or replacement for notably-absent facial animation. It includes effortless object-manipulation controls involving knobs, switches, notes, books, and monitors, but these barely outshine the delayed clunkiness of essential running commands, leaning, and the heft-bereft feather-weight props that go flying as you carve an unintentional path like Godzilla collapsing a cardboard Japanese city. I ultimately like both the art and the controls (and especially the sounds effects) though the game switches tracks between under-whelmingly mundane set pieces and majestic environs that absolutely nailed someone’s vision of a [potentially] post-apocalyptic deap-sea virtualized hellscape infected by nightmarish biomechanoid invaders of dooom (three Os). I saw some reviewers complaining, though the suspense-building bits where you amble across the alien terrain that is the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean are memorable, recognizable, and haunting.
Unique Features: The main character’s evolving sense of self identification, the philosophical questions postulated, and the gritty details surrounding this whole scenario belong solely to SOMA. The contaminant’s representation, though occasionally underused, is an enthralling impetus to keep the player invested in the brisk story and punctuates a journey of acceptance with bouts of realized dread and danger. Above all else, the sequences of [guided] exploration in the murky depths have no peer.
Gameplay: Aside from a handful of situational puzzles that aren’t immediately obvious, your task is to click the yellow door icons to make them green, discover immaterial audio clips mysteriously lodged into objects/corpses, and look in the direction of scripted events. Often, enemies make themselves well-known with a panting death-burble echoing the muffled halls of submerged corruption, but they also distort your vision with a patchy mosaic that doubly-tips you off that it’s time to duck behind a wall. Don’t look at some, don’t make noise at others, and never ever run when an enemy is present and you’re well on your way to opening every drawer and clicking every button you run across to victory. You may get hit once by an enemy before you regain damnable consciousness as a listing red-screened lumbering biped on the brink of oblivion, though plunging your [good] forearm into [all but one] oceanic cyber anuses will restore your speed and health with no questions asked. Repeat: NO questions asked!
Additional Comments: I had the least amount of fun with the enemy facet of SOMA, and while I recognize the game would be far less tense without them, Fear gave way to Annoyance on some occasions where scripted events had something unexpectedly chasing me and defying the learned convention of freezing in a dark corner until all was well again. Even more often, the inconvenience of starting the section over won out over the impaired vision and sluggish gait of my crippling injuries -a great reason to aggro an enemy twice and be done with it versus shambling off to some spot where I’d inevitably die. After all, the game is this length due to the initial determination of new challenges, so re-challenging an area post-death is a breeze.
What I Liked: The themes, story, setting, and about 70% of all locations/vistas were incredible to behold. The art was generally good though the arrangement of these assets -say, some bare-metal derelict erected at the bottom of the ocean shrouded in the dim glow of swimming mutations- is what will honestly stick with me the most. I became a bit F12 trigger-happy as I frequently turned corners to find yet another mystifying angle that would look great as a screenshot. Furthermore, I was extremely appreciative of being presented with the agonizing duality of saving robotic life or not throughout the entire experience….
What I Disliked: …. though the game did absolutely nothing with my decisions to play the paragon or pariah. Additionally Simon Jarret, your unfortunate avatar, is obnoxiously unobservant, unyielding, and his reactions are deflatingly mopey instead of appropriately bewildered or confused. In his identical situation I would have had polarizing expressions, attitude, and emoted quite a bit early on. This all made him very hard to connect to, root for, and actively protect without having to project my own personal consciousness into his shiny bubble dome and leadened diving boots [nod and a wink]. The simplistic gameplay can also be a detractor at times -likened to a slightly-hazardous tour of an abandoned aquarium instead of a pulse-pounding excursion into the abyssal depths. I backtracked too much when missing crucial computer monitors as well, invoking some degree of self-imposed frustration to the overly straightforward (though realistic) level design.
Glitches Experienced: The framerate was wildly inconsistent in certain areas (I was playing at max graphics, but still) and there developed a slight sound stutter early on -which mysteriously corrected itself so I’m not sure of the cause. Dumbly enough, I also trapped myself in an airlock once by tripping over a chair and getting it wedged in the path of a pressurization door. It never closed so I couldn’t pressurize the room, and the option to re-open the door was never made available.
Hours I Played: 10 hours precisely
My Personal Reaction: I had enjoyed Amnesia previously (less than everyone else apparently), though the devs have really honed their game formula to a new standard with SOMA. For what it lacks in mechanics and challenge, it redeems itself upon the uncomfortable and questionable role it thrusts you into. I’ve never been so unwilling to embark on one man’s fruitless journey and come away so satisfied with it before. It would be so easy to miss a beat with the pacing regarding complicated narrative reveals while keeping the player interested and forgiving enough to overlook other foibles, but SOMA delivers spectacularly. It has mastered that concept of doubt, where you are cognizant of responsibility and develop deep anxieties about what lays around the corner but juggle the multiple emotions sparked by true awe, reticence, and a resigned sense of fate that you must proceed. Out of character, you just God damn want to learn where SOMA is taking the latest development but know in your heart of hearts a bitter-sweet ending is in store.
Noob Tips: Read everything, and process situations like an engineer. Cables often lead directly where your attention needs to focus and lighting does a great job of illuminating critical elements. SOMA’s tasks drop the hand-holding from time to time and encourage you to stop moving, reflect, and find a way out of that salt-water-drenched paper bag. If all else fails fiddle with knobs, look for computer screens, and mouse over all objects.
Depth and Replayability: I can’t think of a flimsy reason to replay the entire experience beyond confirming that the antagonizing morality choices have no bearing past my own crushing guilt. The story is plenty deep, though the mechanics are barely there… regardless; this is one of those treks that will likely hound you for many days if not overtly change your opinion on the subjects of identity, humanity, and the purpose of life!
Suggested Value: Soma was a Steam gift that is currently going for $30 (thanks Matthew). Having beaten it, I’d recommend letting that price drop to around $20 before jumping in feet-first.
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Where to Buy: Steam, Gamestop, most common retail Outlets, and https://www.frictionalgames.com/site/