Note: First, I will give a quick, spoiler-free overview on the game, and then have a longer spoiler filled segment where I will go in more detail.
SOMA takes on average 10 hours to complete, and tells a full and meaningful story about a post apocalyptic world and a humanity desperate to survive the end of it. SOMA is a first person sci-fi survival horror game from the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Frictional Games, and is a well done horror game that managed to have me on edge for many parts. Where the game really shines is in its world building and storytelling, from the general atmosphere of the decrepit underwater base the game takes place in, to the voice files, email, and other details left by the crew. SOMA does a great job of building up the broader world, and the sense of desperation that everyone living has experienced as they struggle to survive.
SOMA also does not shy away from asking interesting and hard philosophical questions throughout it’s narrative about the nature of humanity and consciousness, in a way that fits well within the world that the game creates. Unfortunately, due to SOMA’s lack of game play depth, I do not think there is much intrinsic replay value to the game, though I will likely replay it at some point. It is still a very worthwhile experience for those interested.
I would highly recommend SOMA for fans of survival horror games like Amnesia, and games that provoke you to think while presenting an albeit linear, yet compelling world for you to discover.
Now BEWARE OF SPOILERS as I enter my more in depth review of the game. You have been warned.
NARRATIVE AND WORLD
The narrative and world are SOMA’s great strength. You play as Simon Jarrett, a young man from Toronto who finds himself in a sticky situation when a brain scan apparently goes wrong. He wakes up in 2105 in the underwater facility PATHOS-II. Simon quickly discovers that he is one of last remaining humans as he embarks on a mission to safeguard what is left of humanity. Following a global apocalypse the consciousness of many of the facility’s residents were scanned and copied onto “The Ark”; a virtual simulation where the last of humanity can float in space for millennium, happy and saved, at least for a time.
Are those real people? Are they the same people? What is a consciousness? A soul? SOMA’s willingness to address these big questions that relate to its subject matter is one of its great strengths. In fact, even the main character Simon is a copy of the original, whose brain was scanned in 2105. Simon and his companion through most of the game, Catherine Chun, get into many arguments about the nature of their existence as scans, and what it means to be “real” and to be “human.”
Another strength of SOMA is its mysterious enemies. PATHOS-II has a station wide AI called the Warden Unit (WAU). After the comet fell the WAU’s primary objective became the survival of humanity. There is only one problem with this, and it is best put by Dr. Johan Ross in SOMA:
“Where is the line drawn for what is human and what is not? Would walking corpses do? Would a group of machines thinking they’re human be acceptable? We can’t trust a machine to know, to understand what it means to be.”
The WAU corrupted life all across the station, turning most into mindless walking corpses that turned on their former crew mates, yet no one knows why. It is something that is talked about, and wondered about but the game never comes out and directly give an answer. This leaves us wondering what actually is going on and opens up the possibilities to all manner of theories as to the WAU’s true intentions.
The game world is built through dialogue with Catherine, but a lot of it is picked up though black boxes, audio logs, and emails between crews. SOMA’s avoidance of an exposition dump, or a million cut scenes to explain it’s story really makes it feel like a lived in world that you are a visitor in. Simon often asks the same questions we as players would ask at the same time, reacts in believable ways to some messed up situations, and the voice acting is quite good. You can resonate and feel the emotion of some of the characters as they go through these truly horrible situations.
The visuals of SOMA also help sell this world: the rust and algae in the airlock doors, the spreading corruption of the WAU oozing out of the walls, plates still left out from the meal before everyone was slaughtered. All of the little details plus the way SOMA shares it’s story, leads to a narrative experience that left me thoroughly satisfied throughout.
Now time for some weaknesses. SOMA suffers from a chronic lack of mechanical diversity. You move, stealth, interact with objects with the mouse, and that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong, the game is immensely fun, and the environments that you traverse through are immersive, both audibly and visually, but the lack of mechanical depth lends to its unfortunate lack of re-play-ability.
For the vast majority of the game your “inventory” consists of merely an Omnitool that is used to open doors and access equipment, but it is simply a click to use system. At various points you have other items you can pick up for limited times, but nothing that allows an alteration of your play style as you progress through the game. One example is a stun gun you acquire to disable a neutral robot worker and take a component from it. You then immediately discard the stun gun and never run into a similar situation again.
SOMA also lacks any major resource management. Frictional Games’ 2010 hit horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent utilized a combination of sanity which decreases in darkness, and upon witnessing horrifying events, balanced with a limited amount of oil and tinderboxes for light. This created additional tension with the balance between using up your light, and braving the dark. This resource created tension is something SOMA lacks, and very well might be improved by it.
SOMA includes a variety of enemies: the slow, lumbering Construct, the blind, but sharp of hearing and very fast Proxy, and the Flesher to name a few. I will talk about the two most unique; the Flesher and the Proxy.
The Flesher is an interesting case because it appears to be completely oblivious to both sound and sight of the player. Instead, it is antagonized by proximity, and being looked at by the player. This creates interesting situations where you have to take quick glances and navigate with limited information at times, which provided some of the most tense moments in the game.
The Proxy enemy type is encountered throughout base site Theta, and like the Flesher requires you to adapt your play style around its mechanics. It is completely blind but has insanely sharp hearing. The Proxy moves at a slow shamble through the corridors, but upon hearing sounds will head towards them, and if agitated enough it will break into an all out sprint that is almost impossible to escape. It is best to simply take things slowly and quietly, making small movements, and if you have to do something loud, do it and then make zero noise. I quite enjoyed my time in Theta with the Proxy, and the dance of sound that was required.
One personal observation is the terrifying feeling of entering a new zone. By the end of Theta I was more than used to the Proxy and its behavior, but as I entered the next zone I found myself wondering, “What will I encounter now?” I had no clue as to what I would encounter or how they would behave. This is an excellent feeling for a horror game to produce, and I give them high praise for being able to evoke that fear of the unknown.
Once again, Frictional Games uses sound magnificently. When you are walking down the dark hallway, only the sound of your own two feet on the metal floor, and the sparks flying from the broken cable in the wall, and you suddenly hear a clatter in next room, or a mechanical roar as a spotlight pierces the dark around the corner, and you experience the terror that good sound design brings to a game.
Earlier, I briefly talked about the Proxy. There are props scattered all over the ground in Theta where the Proxy resides. If you don’t watch where you are stepping as you sneak along the floor, you may accidentally send a water bottle skittering across the ground, creating way to much racket. Then you hear the Proxy’s ungodly shriek and the thumping across the floor as he sprints, and all you can do is cower in a corner in fear.
Sound is both your friend and your enemy in SOMA, both allowing you to hear that which you can’t see, and also alerting your foes. The general ambiance of the game is really well done, and adds quite a bit of tension to the already abnormal and creepy surroundings: the drip of black structure gel goop and the raspy breathing of people trapped in a living nightmare as the WAU keeps them alive, but forever suffering. Every sound is fantastically well done in SOMA.
SOMA is a ride all the way through. As mishap after mishap keeps you from your destination, you discover more about this world where everything has failed, every plot unraveled, and the only remaining hope is a virtual world floating through space. SOMA delivers a well made and scary story about a dead world and dying people, and is very comfortable with making you think about difficult questions. Additionally, it is a unique IP. Many horror games are fantasy and supernatural related, but SOMA’s sci-fi tale is a refreshing venture into the not to distant future with threats and questions we very well could face ourselves. For any who are fans of the survival horror genre, SOMA is definitely one to have in your bucket list to play.