One of the most terrifying games I’ve ever experienced was Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
When it was announced that Frictional Games would be releasing its next title in the horror genre, I couldn’t have been more enthused. However, my experience with SOMA was far less in the way of terrifying and led by greater feelings of frustration and tedium.
First and foremost, I must praise the interesting and thought-provoking narrative that centers around the mysterious Simon Jarrett. No information is given about the game’s protagonist from the start. We merely know he’s scheduled for a brain scan with Doctor Munshi before he is inexplicably transported to an abandoned underwater facility called PATHOS-II. What results is a story focused experience that shan’t be revealed, lest I spoil all of SOMA‘s secrets. It attempts to tackle themes such as the value of life, death, and the brain’s bond with the body, mostly to great success. Understanding Simon’s bizarre predicament as well as the nature of his inevitable companion Catherine is what kept me playing the title. SOMA‘s story is quite a departure from grim horror and jump scares, and is instead a tale of psychological dread packed with existential questions.
Unfortunately, the gameplay that enables this journey is where things begin to go awry. SOMA ultimately serves as a first-person, exploration, puzzle-solving experience. Simon is armed only with his Omnitool, a portable computer device used to house brain scan chips as well as operate the facility, and whatever is available throughout the environment. These areas, however, are extremely linear in most regards. You will occasionally stumble across rooms with tattered notes as well as open documents on computer monitors that provide cryptic clues regarding the facility’s mysteries. Despite this, the player’s path in the right direction is always lit up (often literally) as players find themselves walking down one hallway after the next in effort to reach the next area that requires problem-solving.
The puzzles that I speak of are never particularly difficult or engaging either. This only stands out as an issue as they might have been segments to break up the monotony of walking across the lifeless ocean. SOMA does attempt to spice up these areas by introducing terrifying, disgusting monsters which can track Simon through a variety of ways depending on the species you’re dealing with. These encounters were meant to cause a sense of stress and urgency within the player, but ultimately make progressing through story a slog. I quickly identified monster behavior and found myself simply waiting until the coast was clear. It quickly got to the point where I found myself groaning every time I heard a monster plodding about, and not for the intended reason. The gameplay was ultimately a chore between the more interesting story segments. This presents pacing issues that prevent full engrossment in Simon’s past and coming future.
Fortunately, SOMA is a game that is pleasing to look at in a sadistic sort of way. Environments effectively communicate the mood of despair and hopelessness that is prevalent throughout the journey. The darkness of the ocean depths remind us why underwater life can be the most terrifying of all. Also, while the monsters fail to intimidate through manner of gameplay, they prove to be quite gruesome and disgusting to the eye. Even the choice to turn the player’s screen to static as threats loomed near proved to be an excellent stylistic choice that gave the title its own identity. While it by no mean pressures the boundaries of what machines can do, SOMA always presents itself with high fidelity. In unison with the crisp visuals comes its solid voice acting and disturbing ambience. Horror games are much less about booming, memorable scores, and more about creating sounds that envelop an unsettling atmosphere, and SOMA succeeds in this endeavor. The various robots and their too-human ability to converse and feel emotion and pain was perhaps most unsettling of all. The sound of dying humans, or what once resembled them, gasping as they are kept alive by those machines is something that will sicken and disturb for weeks to come . . .
SOMA‘s campaign will cost the player roughly eight hours to complete. Because it is so narrative-centric, subsequent playthroughs are unlikely to occur. The game’s major draw-in is the thirst for answers to Simon’s plight beneath the depths. While the story provoked some great philosophical discourse, the game ultimately leaves the player wanting for what could have been. Major commendation goes to Frictional Games for attempting to diversify its identity and show ability to make games besides the likes of Amnesia, but the intended moments of horror in this title leave much to be desired. Instead, we have a game that tries to do a little of both but feels lackluster on both ends.