SOMA is the latest title from Swedish developer Frictional Games, known for their chilling and atmospheric Penumbra and Amnesia series. It was just over five years ago that Amnesia: The Dark Descent spawned what is now the familiar genre of unarmed survival horror. Anyone who has played these earlier titles will feel right at home here, but SOMA doesn’t merely retread old ground, it builds upon and transcends the established conventions of the genre.
In fact it’s a difficult game to discuss as a lot of SOMA’s best moments depend on them being fresh for the player. This review will of course attempt to reveal as little of the plot as possible. You play as Simon Jarret, who has just woken up in an underwater research facility called Pathos-II. It quickly becomes clear that the station and its staff are in a very poor state, physically, mechanically and… well let’s just leave it there shall we?
The twists and turns of SOMA are revealed at a masterful pace as you read computer logs, listen to audio recordings and converse with some of the stations residents. The game tells you enough to keep you intrigued (and terrified) but you’re never given the whole picture. It’s up to the player to piece together what has happened at Pathos-II and indeed to Simon.
The world itself is beautifully crafted, every inch of the base is oozing with detail. It feels lived-in, ‘touched’ and utterly immersive. The graphics themselves aren’t groundbreaking, although it is a significant step up from Frictional’s earlier games. The use of visual distortion and chromatic aberration is great, which is an achievement considering how unpleasant the application of the latter is in most games.
The sound design in particular is absolutely fantastic. Every static burst, electronic pulse and petrifying screech seemed to strike at my very soul. The ambient music is appropriately grim and eerie, and adds to the vibe without getting in the way. All the voice acting is fantastic and the script does a wonderful job of maintaining the emotional connection without getting bogged down in exposition.
SOMA has less gameplay elements than Amnesia or Penumbra. There’s no insanity meter, no potions to drink or food to eat. You don’t have to worry about running out of flint and tinder for your lantern or batteries for your torch. Some may be disappointed by this, but I don’t feel SOMA loses anything by removing these mechanics. So what is the gameplay made up of?
As Simon, you essentially have to overcome various problems in order to proceed. Some of these problems take the form of repairing machinery or gaining access to computers, others involve getting from A to B under duress. You’ll open doors, pick up and place objects in slots, turn valves, remove plugs and throw heavy objects through windows, all by gesturing the mouse. It all feels natural and really puts you in the moment, especially when under pressure. Frantically trying to close a door when some hideous thing is right behind you screeching incoherently and you have no way of fighting back… it’s what Frictional Games is known for and they do not disappoint with SOMA.
As for the monster encounters, SOMA manages to avoid the flaws of other games in this genre. In Outlast for example the initial fear wears off quickly as you work out how easy it is to avoid the thing coming after you. As soon as you’re able to see the game design behind the scariness, the scariness disappears completely. Just like an episode of Scooby-Doo. With SOMA (and without spoiling too much) no two encounters are identical. The creatures vary in how they affect you and how you can affect them.
In the end it is the story and characters that make SOMA hard to stop thinking about long after the credits roll. The emotional gut punches keep coming and yet it never overwhelms. I was left wanting more in the best possible way. SOMA asks what constitutes life, existence, a person. Does it provide any answers? I guess you’ll have to find out for yourself.