SOMA, by Frictional Games, is a game that wants to mess with your head. The developers at Frictional Games are no strangers to survival horror, though SOMA is their first foray into the realm of Science Fiction. Their previous releases — The Penumbra and Amnesia series — have had more of an occult feel to them. Our SOMA review will take a look at what goes right when things go horribly horribly wrong on a derelict underwater research facility.
You start your game of SOMA in a relatively mundane manner — riding public transportation on your way to a doctor’s appointment. Your character, Simon, was in a car accident that killed his friend and left him with brain damage and cranial bleeding. Not a good position to be in by any means. Next you’ll wake up in your Toronto apartment searching for some information regarding an upcoming appointment for an experimental brain scan. Arriving later at a run down medical office for this scan, you’ll work through a few small puzzles to make your way to the scan itself. You sit in the chair to get your brain scanned and that’s when stuff starts getting weird.
After your scan you wake up in a similar chair, but in a very different environment. The run down (but otherwise fairly normal) medical office has been replaced by a odd room in an unknown location. The walls and floor are metal, the ceiling and one wall appear to have been breached and are leaking a viscous black substance, there are definite signs of human activity, but no sign of any humans. You’ll eventually learn where you are, but will have no idea how you got there.
Through the course of the game you’ll find that the viscous black fluid and the tentacle-like growths that come out of it have spread throughout your new home. You’ll be able to inexplicably interact with machines and even remains of some of the crew that you find, and slowly throughout your time in SOMA your new situation will start to become clear. I’m not going to ruin that for you here, though SOMA does give you some things to think about as you progress through the story.
The gameplay in SOMA is mostly pretty standard FPS fare, though with almost no “S.” There are, however, a few tweaks that have been seen in previous Frictional games. Most notably the door opening mechanism, where you don’t just push a button to interact, you’ll need to click and drag (in the case of mouse/keyboard operation) on doors, drawers, etc. in order to open and close them. This might seem like a small touch, but it does add to both the stealth and horror aspects of the game.
You can’t just shut a door instantly behind you, you’ll need to stop, turn, and slide the door closed. This can work to your benefit if you’re just trying to scope out an area without drawing too much attention, but can work to your detriment if you’ve already drawn attention and are trying to avoid any additional attention.
The attention in this instance comes from a relatively small pool of enemies that are interspersed throughout the experience to add tension and anxiety on top of what the environment already provides. The other games in Frictional’s catalog are all non-combat games and SOMA is no exception. You will not be fighting back against these enemies no matter how much you may want to. You’ll need to outsmart and avoid them. Horror and stealth go hand in hand.
If you’re in a situation where something horrible is happening around you chances are good you aren’t going to want to be noticed. Horror video games use elements of stealth frequently to raise tension and generally create a more horrific environment. SOMA definitely does this with some of the enemy encounters. You’ll need to be quiet, or in some cases distract and misdirect the enemies to keep them away from you.
Without getting into too many specifics that might potentially spoil things, SOMA does a great job creating a tense atmosphere, especially when it comes to the enemy encounters. When you’re normally able to explore and evaluate your situation freely, the insertion of an enemy changes the dynamic significantly. You’ll have the occasional jump scare, or sudden loud noise to keep you on the edge of your seat during normal exploration, but the enemies add a definite layer on top to keep things interesting.
SOMA’s graphics do exactly what they need to do — immerse you in a creepy environment. I ran the game on not quite the highest settings (probably a medium+ if I had to name it) and all of the environments looked great. A few of the smaller details such as underwater plant life and a few other things were slightly less detailed, though your mileage may vary with higher display settings.
The areas where graphics really matter though — enemy models, detail on computer monitors and other items that must be read, etc. are very well done. You are truly immersed into this new environment that you don’t understand, and that is all thanks to the art and graphics. This unfamiliar landscape also adds to the tension and anxiety that you may feel playing the game.
Graphics and visuals are important for establishing a creepy game environment, but sound design is equally, if not more important. Imagination can be a crazy thing, and the things we cannot see will often be more frightening than those we can see. The sound effects and ambient noise are really quite good. During a particular enemy encounter, the noises that the enemy made before I even saw them made the whole experience significantly more creepy.
The dialog and voice acting is generally solid, though at times it can feel a little forced. Some of that makes sense in relation to the story, so I can’t fault the performances too much. For the most part though, dialog is good.
Horror games aren’t for everybody. Psychological horror games even less so. When those games are particularly well done though, they deserve to be played. I’m not usually one for stealth or horror games… I prefer games that let you run right up and shoot the bad guys in the face. But Frictional Games have made a stealth/horror game that is heavy on exploration and discovery. You’ll be drawn into your new environment, and often when you least expect it, you’ll be jarred out of your exploration by a well-placed baddie. SOMA hits a lot of high marks and is a game that you should experience.