Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Platform: PC [Reviewed], Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4
Release Date: September 22, 2015
You may know Frictional Games for their work with the Amnesia franchise. With Amnesia: The Dark Descent, as well as its sequel, A Machine for Pigs, Frictional Games proved that they were an asset to the horror genre for video games. Now they’re at it again with the sci-fi horror title, SOMA.
When SOMA begins, you are in control of Simon Jarrett in Toronto, Canada. You find out he had been in a car crash with his coworker, Ashley. She died, and Simon was left with brain damage resulting in periodic bleeding from his head. As you wake up after having a dream about the crash, you find out you’re going in for a brain scan to try an experimental treatment for repairing the damage.
Eventually you find yourself sitting in a chair waiting for your brain scan. Moments after the inspection begins, you wake up in a strange facility not knowing exactly what happened. This is where SOMA truly begins. Ultimately, your goal is to explore the facility, find out where you are, and what you need to do. As you explore, you start coming across various robots that just make the facility that much more mysterious.
I’ll avoid delving too deeply into the story, as that is the major focus of SOMA. Unlike other horror games, this title doesn’t attempt to scare you in traditional ways. You do deal with some odd monsters who create a tense atmosphere, and there are a few jump scares, although you can count the number on one hand. The big draw though is the tension and anxiety felt as you explore the strange environment.
When it comes to the story, there isn’t a lot completely spelled out for you. There are main interactions that get you all of the important facts that you absolutely need in order to know where to go and what to do, but a lot of the information in the game is optional. You choose whether or not you want to explore and find the information, or if you’re content with what has already been presented to you. This choice of information gathering goes hand-in-hand with the gameplay.
In SOMA, one thing you will learn early on is that you have no weapons. You largely have no items. What you do have is the ability to pick up and toss objects, an ability with varying degrees of usefulness from start to finish, as well as the indispensable ability to run for dear life. When something comes crashing towards you, there is no trusty shotgun to pull out and start firing away with. You just get to tense up, smash sprint, and hope you don’t run into a dead end.
Enemies in SOMA are varied. Early enemies largely rely on visuals and sound to track you, while later enemies may be completely focused on sound, but while also being incredibly fast to make up for the lack of sight. No matter what the enemy is, the key is to avoid them. Generally, there’s usually only one enemy in a given area, but if you aren’t careful, they have the capacity to follow you for quite a while. Ideally you won’t grab their attention to begin with.
The big draw though is the tension and anxiety felt as you explore the strange environment.
As you run from enemies and explore, you’ll see that it’s as deep as the gameplay goes. This isn’t a bad thing, though. Being encumbered with weaponry would risk the experience feeling generic, and otherwise you can do everything you need to with the few controls given to you in order to have a complete game. Not to mention that it all works together to feel just right in giving it that horror feeling.
Now, I’ve talked about the horror briefly so far. You are probably wondering what exactly makes this a horror game though. As I mentioned, a big part of the game is the tense atmosphere. The facility is generally dark, uncomfortable, and you never know when you may have to deal with the next enemy, making every sound into another risk. I felt incredibly anxious from my first enemy encounter forward, and that feeling remained for the entirety of the journey.
A large part of the atmosphere that should not be undersold is the sound design. No sound in SOMA feels wasted, and all of it comes across as strategic and well done. Thuds, slams, silence, and more all contribute perfectly to the creepy atmosphere. It feels like a lot of care went into making sure every sound was perfectly placed.
Perhaps the best part of SOMA is the way that it makes you think. Rather than just trying to scare you and calling it a day, Frictional Games asks some questions that will really make you think. What does it mean to be human? When is a human no longer a human? If a robot acts human, should it be treated as a human or a robot? Can AI truly be good or evil if it’s simply acting on its designs? Questions like these are the ones that you ultimately confront as you continue to explore and learn.
Despite all of the good in SOMA, the questions it asks, the tense atmosphere, information collecting, and otherwise, there is one major caveat that could ruin the experience for some. As interesting as much of the game was, there were still times when I felt bored. There were times where the experience hit a crawl, and it felt like I was having to force myself through to the next part in hope that it would turn interesting again.
The Bottom Line
Thankfully, not too many of these moments were present throughout, but SOMA does walk a bit of a fine line between potentially very interesting and potentially very boring. The rest of the game itself is fairly solid though, and I experienced a problem free play through from start to finish.
In the end, SOMA is an interesting experience. It isn’t necessarily fun, which is an odd thing to say about a game, but you’ll still want to keep playing to understand what exactly is going on throughout the facility from top to bottom. It is intriguing, and can facilitate deep thinking with the questions proposed to the player. SOMA feels like a fairly unique experience, and it is a fine addition to the horror genre.