Soma is the latest in the series of “scare your tits off” games from horror junkies Frictional Games. Being a fan of Frictional Games I loaded the title up with high anticipation (and a fresh pair of underpants, just incase) and what I found didn’t disappoint me but it did give me a new found admiration for the developers behind it.
From the get-go Soma throws you into the deep end of the narrative, starting with a dream/nightmare of a car crash, you wake in a sweat to the sound of a vibrating phone. A doctor, Dr Munshi, who tells you to drink a liquid so your brain scan can be read better. You can search around the apartment and find some extra tidbits out by searching on Simon’s (the protagonist) laptop and some other things scattered around or you can just find the liquid and move on. Exiting the apartment, you find yourself on a short train journey where Simon receives a phone call from a friend/work colleague asking Simon why he won’t be in work today and Simon replies saying he has a brain scan. After the train you arrive at the doctor’s office.
You realise that from something as simple as a phone call, Simon is just a guy. Unlike previous Frictional Games titles, Simon is a real world person, living in the world that we inhabit. It’s a nice change as it becomes relatable, something we can understand. The doctors office is empty and this is where Soma truly begins with using your initiative Only a simple task but you must find out the code to a door by means of searching, it’s a nice ease into a complicated game. After traipsing through the hallway you come across the Doctor Munshi, who performs a brainscan on you using, what can only be described as, “a big machine” which mysteriously transports you to a place that most definitely, isn’t the doctor’s office.
What Soma does well from the start is raise questions. “Where am I?” “What’s happened to me?” “What’s happened to this place I’m in?”. You don’t feel alone in the darkness of the narrative though as Simon feels the same way, he’s in the same boat. He’s scared, confused and lonely and you’re his only hope of surviving this god awful nightmare. As you trawl through the first few corridors unexpected things begin to happen. Robot’s come alive looking for you and as you find audio tapes from previous PATHOS-II survivors, you see you’re not in a safe place.
If you’ve played Frictional’s previous outings (especially Amnesia) you’ll feel right at home playing Soma. Straight out of the bag, the Amnesia engine and control scheme is apparent and makes the transition of walking around and exploring simple and easy. You walk around using the analog stick and use the shoulder buttons to pick up, grab, throw items and lean around corners. It keeps your thumbs free to move around, especially in the moments where things get really tense. The lack of an apparent inventory system is a disappointment instead of swiping left or right on the touchpad to pick an item but in true Frictional fashion they don’t want to take you away from the immersion and also, why keep items in an inventory when you’ve already used them?
It does make sense, I would have just liked to see one. Also, gameplay wise, Soma doesn’t feel like that “next-gen” experience. Simplicity is nice, especially in non-combat games, but we are in a day and age when games can handle a lot. Amnesia was a fantastic title but it doesn’t mean Soma has to follow suit, it should have it own identity and not just through the narrative. On top of being simplistic, the stealth feels rather stale. You can see huge influences in this title from other big games such as Alien Isolation but instead of using them as a foundation and building on top of it, Soma feels like it is mimicking them but not doing as good a job.
From a design point of view, Soma is incredible. When Bioshock introduced Rapture (and later Columbia) it was something special. When Mass Effect gave us the Citadel, it was spectacular but what Soma offers, is a scary future. The underwater base of PATHOS-II is a realistic, believable world. The industry heavy, dark, dirty, gritty nightmare of a passable future is a wondrous creation. Soft lighting barely illuminates the tight corridors as the beams of the humanoid robots chasing after you cuts through the dark.
The darkness is scary in Soma as the darkness is all around. The darkness is the unknown and fear of the unknown is where Soma strives. As you wander around (sorry, did I say wander? I meant crawl) PATHOS-II you will find clues and audio files to what happened before. As you slowly uncover more clues and audio clips, you’ll understand the harrowing truth as to why you are in this mess and as to why it’s only you there.
Soma has it faults and downfalls but all together is a great experience. More psychological horror than jump-scare. If you like narrative driven titles with occasional jump-scares and stealth sections then Soma is worth picking up. If you prefer the more action approach to horror such as Alien Isolation and Kidnapped then Soma most likely isn’t the game for you.