SOMA is the latest from Frictional Games who are best known for their other horror title Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Players are put in the role of Simon Jarrett, a man from Toronto who begins a series of experimental brain scans after a car accident that killed his girlfriend or wife. It’s not made clear but it really has no impact on the plot. After conducting a scan, Simon wakes in a decrepit science facility at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean called Pathos II. Soon Simon discovers his body isn’t his, the facility was attacked by something, and his only companion is Catherine Chun, a digital version of the real Catherine. Catherine wants to launch the ARK into space, a computer lodging the brain scans of the Pathos II crew that are now virtual AI, to preserve the remnants of humanity. And then it gets spooky … sometimes.
This is the not-so basic premise of SOMA. Normally I start a review talking about the gameplay, but the story is very obviously the meat of SOMA’s dish. If that lengthy opening paragraph didn’t spell it out, it’s a complicated story with a lot of lore, and it’s honestly a bit hard to balance this review between giving information about the plot and keeping the plot points as surprises. SOMA is advertised as a horror game, but in most cases the horror comes from the atmosphere.
The deep sea is an interesting setting ripe for horror that SOMA uses spectacularly. The feelings of isolation from being trapped in an empty facility at the bottom of the ocean are only heightened by the knowledge that the surface is decimated and all is gone. The sections where Simon traverses across the sea floor, guided only by flickers of light, put these feelings into overdrive. Then comes feelings of unease when you discover the delusional robots who think they’re humans.
These feelings turn to dread when Simon discovers many of Pathos II’s workers were either killed, forced alive as nothing more than breathing corpses by a renegade cancerous AI called the WAU that manifests itself into the physical world through a black goo called structure gel, or perhaps worse, the black goo overtakes their bodies, fusing their suits and technology to their bodies and turning them into grotesque hybrids whose only desire seems to be killing anything that moves. And then the horror comes when these hybrid monstrosities come for you.
Beyond the typical horror, SOMA‘s prevailing theme is that of existence. What makes you … you? What about when there are two of “you?” This of course isn’t a new concept, with even games like The Swapper tackling similar themes, but then again what hasn’t been done already? The information comes fairly early in the game so I won’t feel bad spoiling it, but the original Simon Jarrett is dead. The Simon played as through most of SOMA is Simon’s digitized consciousness, a copy. The same goes for Catherine, but she’s stuck in your Omnitool, the game’s multipurpose device and Catherine’s home until you plug her into a computer. It’s the attitudes and reactions our main characters give to the events in the game that represent two perspectives on their existence and how it relates to the ARK.
Catherine believes the ARK is humanity’s last hope. That humanity can live on as digital copies in a virtual world in space, and she seems unfazed by the knowledge that she herself is a copy and that the human Catherine might be alive somewhere. Catherine believes that “you” is subjective and moveable, and any version of her, human or copied, is an extension of the self.
Simon does not agree. He is distraught with his new body and becomes even more so when he changes bodies and discovers what is left behind. Simon believes that his consciousness is his own identity and that the ARK is his only chance for his consciousness to live on. Simon believes his existence is defined by his own perspectives and his place in the world.
And wrapped up in all that is a story of an advanced AI program trying to execute its purpose and save humanity with horrific results. SOMA‘s ending will likely arouse different reactions from different people. It’s both a sad and happy ending, but considering what was done, I found myself wondering if anything done in SOMA was really worth it. But in the end I found SOMA to be a great story with interesting setting and lore, though I wish some aspects of the story were less ambiguous. Unfortunately, it’s clear the team at Frictional Games valued story and presentation over gameplay.
SOMA’s gameplay is very simple. Simon can walk, crouch, run, jump and pick things up. Most of SOMA is walking around in your pursuit of plot necessary items dictated by Catherine or simply to get from point A to B. Wandering around and checking every nook and cranny will often reward players with extra bits of lore and information about the crew members of Pathos II, but usually the most important bits come from following Catherine’s instructions.
Compared to Amnesia there’s significantly less players can do, mainly because the game lacks an interactable inventory setting. There are usable items to collect but often they’re used once quickly and never used again, other than the Omnitool, which lets Catherine interact with computers and lets Simon open certain doors.
My first issue I found with SOMA’s gameplay was the way Simon interacts with things. In most games, opening a door involves simply clicking a door. SOMA instead uses physics to have Simon drag the door open with the swipe of a mouse. It doesn’t sound like a terrible thing, but once you get to sections where you’re rotating valves by circling the mouse, performing basic functions feels overly methodical, like a tedious chore.
There’s little to no puzzle solving in SOMA, unless you count wandering around like an idiot wondering where to go as a puzzle, or throwing a fire extinguisher at cracked glass to break it. The puzzles that were present were so laughably easy to solve or so stupidly simple you couldn’t even think of them as puzzles. For instance, there’s a puzzle where Simon must rotate dials on a grid to make electricity flow into the right channels of a robot. By simply clicking each dial a few times I had the puzzle solved in under 30 seconds.
SOMA’s biggest moments of terror come from the monster segments. These are also the most frustrating parts of the games. The monsters will charge on sight and knock Simon out when touched the first time, only to awake in the same spot he got attacked. The second time Simon is killed and must respawn at the last checkpoint. These sections are meant to be stealth segments, but most of it feels clunky, and understanding the monsters’ patterns feels more like guesswork than anything.
One thing I liked is throwing objects would draw the creatures to where the object landed, but even that brought mixed results. Most of the time I found it easier to just throw an item, run past the enemy and then crouch behind something, because once you’re crouching you become so well hidden that in many situations I had Simon crouch right in front of the monster until it shambled away.
Sometimes the best strategy was to let Simon take the attack since the monster would be in another area once Simon awoke. But sometimes Simon would wake and the monster would be right in front of him, leading to death. These segments quickly became more annoying than scary.
The best way I would describe SOMA’s gameplay is blunt and unintuitive. The overly methodical interactions, boring puzzles, frustrating stealth and the long stretches of walking through admittedly atmospheric areas, all make SOMA something I’d have rather watched than played. It feels like a story was written, a setting was created around it, and then a few gameplay elements were slapped on to keep the game from being a two hour walking simulator, but honestly I wish I had gotten two hours of a great story than about nine hours of performing menial tasks waiting to be rewarded with narrative. It’s abundantly clear SOMA‘s goal is to be an experience more than a game.
I’m sure SOMA will get a lot of glowing reviews because of its story, but story is the only thing that kept me going through the menial, boring tasks Simon was given. There are multiple endings to SOMA, but honestly I can’t imagine players would play the game through again. I know I won’t.
In honesty, games like these disappoint me. Among the Sleep, Path to Thalamus and many other titles fall into the category of “Good idea, bad execution,” where it’s clear most of these game developers would rather be making movies. Games like these are like those decorated theme cakes with spaceships and ninjas and other things popping out of it that look like an epic adventure. And then you take a bite and it tastes like a wet Twinkie. SOMA’s story and setting is really the game’s only draw, so if you really want the “experience,” then you pick up the game, otherwise I’d just watch some gameplay videos.
This product was obtained for free by the developer/publisher for review purposes.
SOMA tells an interesting albeit convoluted story but is a chore to play through.