There is a common thought process amongst children that if you can manage to remain still and covered, even by a thin sheet on a bed, that whatever horrible yet unseen monster stands nearby will never be able to detect your presence. When SOMA is at its best, there is a strong sense of this child-like fear. The way the game manages to hold the attention of an adult audience is through excellent sound design and an attempt at moral philosophizing. Along the way it borrows, or at the very least, captures the feeling of some other famous games.
SOMA has more than touch of System Shock and the Dead Space series in it. Developers Frictional Games know how to tap into the heart of the survival horror genre. It’s been their only genre of exploration dating back to Penumbra in 2007. They are most famous for the Amnesia series, acting as publisher for both titles, and as the developers for the original Amnesia. Amnesia, much like another genre favorite, Outlast, are the style of play represented in SOMA — the running and hiding, without any real ability to fight back.
The game’s story caters to this through their main character. Delving too deep into him — the whys and hows of how he comes to inhabit the game world — would spoil much of the story. So… it will have to suffice to say that an ordinary person, with an extraordinary problem, ends up in a wholly unfamiliar place filled with tangible horrors. However, what SOMA really tries to focus in on are the intangibles. The ethical and moral dilemmas of science, what it means to be human, and the impact of choosing greater or lesser evils.
This attempt at a “bigger picture” piece may turn off some players looking for a straight horror experience. There are plenty of scares, but the pacing, which allows for more discovery related to these questions, feels stilted. It’s like a car moving through city streets, never hitting the lights. Accelerate, accelerate, stop… and repeat.
Everything feels like a mixed bag, from the pacing to the dialogue and more so the visuals. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but I feel that with enough titles under their belt, Frictional needs to up the ante in the graphics department. There are times when SOMA has some beautiful cinematic shots, but they are hindered by low resolution textures, and in my experience, an inconsistent frame-rate.
A couple of times, after first loading the game, I experienced a pro-longed Rage-style texture pop-in period. Other than that, the game was devoid of any issues, aside from the occasional frame-dropping moments. There are quite a few sections where the character is unable to climb or jump over an object that is merely a foot or two high, in order avoid straight-up invisible walls, which probably could have been handled better as well.
The things that really hold SOMA together and give it depth are the sound design and the added, mostly missable bits of story found in audio logs, notes and tapes throughout the game. The circumstances of many of the unseen characters, told through these recorded pieces are sad and scary — they really serve to fill in the gaps of the narrative and make the spaces of the game feel believable.
The sound design is everything you want in a horror game. The environments provide a constant, metallic, creaking and moaning, which are both startling and provide a certain level of misdirection for the player. It’s often hard to tell whether that object falling over, or a stumbling, hollow noise from the ceiling are going to produce a physical scare, or simply remain in the realm of the psychological. That is the game’s strength, and it relies on it for much of the 6-7 hour experience.
Gamers looking for a fast paced horror game will likely be disappointed. Whereas a fantasy-style horror is more common in the genre of late, SOMA is firmly rooted in the sci-fi realm with a heavy dose of philosophy, examining the ethos surrounding the marriage of humanity and technology. It’s different, which is good, but it may not do quite enough to separate itself from the pack. The suspense and horror the game creates is real until players realize there isn’t much in the way of challenge when it comes to puzzles, and the penalties for being caught have no real weight.
Still it’s an interesting journey that begins innocently enough, before taking the lead character to the depths of the ocean on a quest of discovery, survival and understanding. The game retails at $29.99 which seems appropriate for the combined quality and length. This one is for those looking for a story-driven, thinking-person’s horror experience.
Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by the developers.