Blur the line between man and machine in a terrifying bottom-of-the-sea odyssey.
PC Release: September 22, 2015
By Ian Coppock
Those of you who have read my blog for a while know that my favorite kind of game is a horror game, and that my favorite of those is the esteemed Amnesia: The Dark Descent by Frictional Games. So I’m sure everyone here will forgive me for skipping out on Saturday’s review in favor of more time spent with Soma, Frictional’s next work of art and a title five years in the making. My brain is still reeling days after having finished the game, and if you’re in any sort of mood for decent design, scary stories, or both, pop a squat and listen. Because, like Amnesia, Soma is truly special.
Soma is a first-person horror adventure dealing in a mix of atmosphere, philosophy and pure terror. You are Simon Jarrett, a young comic book store owner whose recent car crash has left him with some serious brain damage. Told he has only weeks to live, Simon eagerly agrees to be the guinea pig for a pair of mysterious neurosurgeons, who offer him a chance at survival in exchange for a simple eye test.
The problem is, when Simon exits the machine, he finds himself in a dilapidated underwater facility instead of the Toronto clinic he’d just walked into. And his new friends are nowhere to be found.
Understandably ill at ease, Simon ventures out of the storage room he’d been thrown into and into the wider world of PATHOS-2, a research complex sitting pretty at the very bottom of the ocean. Simon has no memory of what has transpired between his visiting the doctor’s office and waking up down here. Soma takes its time with building up the tension, preferring to let steep an evil tea that grows a little stronger with every bloodstain, every puddle of oil, every spooky noise. There are no people to be found down here, but Simon soon encounters a series of robots who think they are humans.
Some robots are friendlier than others, of course, but they all share the same mysterious condition: they scream, they cry, they feel. They have human voices, names, preferences. In a few deeply disturbing encounters, I’d come to theorize that most of the station’s human populace had become mechanized, but was certainly no closer to discovering why. The encounters with the more amicable robots are brought to life with decent voice acting, a rarity in the indie game world, and left me shivering most of the time. I unplugged a wall socket to activate a machine and the robot who’d been attached to it threw a fit because I’d taken away her “happiness”. Sorry, I meant “its” happiness.
Soma’s voice acting was alright, but the most disappointing performance was from Simon himself, who displays little to no emotion even in the tensest of situations. Even his fright, oh-nos and anger feel feigned. The rest of the cast, including a little robot that accompanies you throughout most of the game, fare much better.
Soma‘s mournful soundtrack contains bits of BioShock and Alien: Isolation, with low strings for tense parts, and jumpy violins for the screamy parts. Distant footsteps and the sounds of things falling over will keep the hairs on your neck rigid as needles, as will the constant crawlings of things through vents. Simon, though, has an annoying habit of waxing philosophical about it as if the game is insecure that you’re keeping up with the plot. Annoying, but not a deal-breaker.
As I’ve harped on many times before, good sound design is key to a good atmosphere. Soma‘s atmosphere is pure dread, and you’ll have to learn how to breathe that if you want any chance of progressing. The environments in this game are outstandingly detailed, with rooms that overflow with props and set design reminiscent of all of the great sci-fi horror flicks. Frictional, ever the fan of spooky mystery goo, has brought that concept back in gallons, and you’ll find other sights just as inexplicable all over the place. Some of the concepts, like the goo, I felt were too similar to things we’ve seen from Frictional already, and Soma risked evoking play-by-play memories of Amnesia with some of its level design.
Gameplay in Soma is not for the faint-of-heart. Despite being trapped in a state-of-the-art complex full of futuristic technologies, Simon can’t be asked to find a weapon or any means of self-defense other than sprinting and hiding. For good measure I tried throwing random things at the monsters I encountered and was rewarded only with staggers backward. I found it funny that you encounter box after box of power tools, crowbars, and other things that robots hate, yet you can’t use them. Your health does not regenerate, adding a vital level of survivalism to the game, as you can’t count on just running past monsters and praying your health will regenerate quickly enough. Soma forces you to be much more careful.
In Amnesia, the gameplay was the same idea, where you get through some sections riddled with monsters and others that dealt with puzzles, and never shall the two meet. In Soma both types of challenge are streamlined together into a cohesive experience. You’ll often be expected to solve simple physics or computer puzzles while multiple abominations are wandering around outside, and there’s something about impending death that makes intuition so much easier to grasp! Some puzzles were a bit frustrating, like one puzzle that required you to find the magic number of gigabytes to hit in a storage system, but the rest were the same rub-object-on-object-to-advance puzzles you see in all sorts of adventure games. Serviceable, but not exactly innovative.
Soma contains a lot of different environments to keep things fresh. The PATHOS-2 station is divvied up into individual research modules, and each one has its own palette of colors and materials. The more industrial modules are foreboding hunks of metal, while the starch-white laboratories are wolves in sheep’s lab coats. Simon has to navigate each module on his way to a larger goal, and that means also walking around on the ocean floor from time to time. The game is well-paced in this regard.
In stark contrast to Amnesia’s different-but-disjointed environment and single crew of three all-purpose ghouls, Soma packs almost a dozen enemies that each require their own strategy. The first time you see these enemies is also the first time you’re setting foot on new turf, so there’s no way to defeat them with experience. You have no reference for the environment you’re in and no reference for how to go up against what you’ve found. Frictional Games robs Soma of predictability to keep it interesting, and dissuades you from looking at the monsters through various means. Some monsters are attracted by sight, others by sound. Some are waiting around the next corridor and require use of hiding, others are lurking in the inky black water and require the use of hauling your asscheeks. It’s wonderfully tense and left me jumping out of my seat more times than I can remember. Soma‘s enemies comprise the most variety I’ve ever seen in a horror game, and it allows the game to get scarier and scarier as we go.
Soma’s plot is the centerpiece of the entire production, blending survival horror with some philosophy so that your heart and your brain are hurting in equal measure. Soma opens with a quote about reality and spends its entire production touching on the theme of what it means to be human. Does it mean inhabiting a body of flesh and blood, or does it mean carrying a set of ideals and emotions no matter what your form? Soma challenged me and any assertions I might’ve had about this going into the game, but that didn’t save some of its scenes from sticking out like sore thumbs. On your way to the final confrontation, you get sidetracked into what feels like a very random five minutes of exposition, which ends with the press of a button and then suddenly returning to the game’s main track. Such jarring moments are more common in Soma than I would’ve liked, but a lot of the game’s dread comes from the game’s philosophical underpinnings, rather than its unremarkable dialogue.
These philosophical elements are a great foundation for the game’s story, but they don’t make it muddled or over-complicated. Much as I loved BioShock Infinite, I started to get tired of Booker and Elizabeth hopping through multiple universes and the story threatened to get sucked into itself. Soma handles similar concepts but they’re introduced in an emotionally heavy fashion, not a technically demanding one. We don’t spend the game musing about these concepts in an abstract way, we get to see their impact first-hand on Simon and his cast of supporting characters. There’s no giant plot twist in Soma. You’re given the main goal fairly early in the game and the horror of the story comes from the growing reality of your situation.
I can’t say much more about Soma’s plot without spoiling the game and thus doing you a grievous disservice, but know that is worth your time. I wouldn’t say that it’s the scariest game I’ve ever played, simply because we’ve already seen a lot of these horror concepts in Penumbra and Amnesia, but adrenaline junkies will still find a solid thrill ride. Thankfully, Soma also doesn’t lose its own narrative in a jungle of pretentious bullshit (I’m looking at you, Machine for Pigs).
And Soma is one of the first games I’ve played in a long, long time whose themes and resolution have left me hurting for comfort days after having finished it. The shittiness of Simon’s situation is not unequaled, nor has Soma‘s setting not ever been done before, but this is the first video game since probably the first BioShock that has left me so satisfied with a narrative. If you never buy another video game that I tell you about this year, buy Soma. A lot of what it contains we’ve seen done before in other games, but it recontextualizes enough of those concepts as to be a novel experience.
Steam. Right now. Everyone has something special to experience with Soma. I realize that not everyone is a fan of horror games and that the idea of being chased down pitch-dark hallways doesn’t suit all tastes, but this is the first time in a while that I’ve found a horror game whose story is strong enough to, I believe, warrant at least giving the game a shot even if you’re not an adrenaline junkie. This is a recommendation being made by an adrenaline junkie, yes, but trust me on this one if nothing else. Have any of my recommendations or angry rants let you wrong before?
You can buy Soma here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.