Frictional Games presents us with Soma, their third IP in survival horror, with an interesting marketing campaign that had fans of Amnesia and Penumbra holding their breath. Ready for the trailer and review?
Soma was revealed with live action shorts introducing us to a strange new world that seems to make little sense but has a huge impact in the game. They are unsettling and seem to lack something from the real world that drives them into the uncanny valley. People familiar with the SCP foundation will squirm on their seats on realization: these people are doomed.
When we begin the game proper, things are almost out of place so mundane they are. You are Simon, a bookstore clerk that has months to live because of brain damage sustained in a car accident. Simon is woken from a nightmare by a call reminding him of a medical appointment, a brain scan to hopefully find a treatment that will save his life.
Immediately after the medical visit he finds himself in a strange place that looks like someone crossed the marine base in Aliens with the interiors of Dead Space and then submerged that in the bottom of the ocean a la Bioshock. So far so good!
Do not adjust your TV set
In typical Frictional fashion, being close to or looking at monsters- this is not a spoiler, of course there are monsters! It’s a survival horror!- will atrophy your vision and weaken you. But while in the other games you had an actual mental health bar, here the explanation makes more sense. I will not spoil it, but it’s one of the rare achievements when gameplay and story add to each other and the realization will hit you like a bucket of cold water. It’s a weird static like interference, like an old VHS tape combined with the artifacts of a dying graphics card and with some chromatic aberration to boot.
Personally, it reminded me of the times my computer died – a different kind of horrifying experience- and I did not want to hang around those things.
The atmosphere is cold and dark, of course, but also there is a strange cyborg element to it. There are growths of things that look organic but plainly are metallic in origin, a strange mix of both that gives a nice spin to the old “meat moss” trope in horror games. I couldn’t be helped but to be reminded of the Reaper troops in the Mass Effect series, and I mean that in a very good way.
Overall, the science fiction scare is done very well and the tension is palpable almost every step of the way, with some safe areas for the puzzles and breathing room.
Philip K. Dick would be proud.
The game greets us with a quote from Philip K. Dick:
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
It marks the tone of the game, beyond the tension and horror and survival, the theme: what is it to be real? To be human?
During the game you encounter some NPCs and recorded dialogue from before whatever happened that left everyone dead and monsters roaming in the underwater complex. While strange and eccentric at first, there is a common thread in those interactions and when you reach the first major milestone in the game the theme and meaning of that quote will smash you like a sledgehammer. And it won’t go away if you stop believing in it.
That’s what I liked the most about the game, it didn’t balk from the implications of the discoveries you make. The characters aren’t flat, they are real people that are in a horrible situation dealing with it to the best of their capabilities. They have dimension and, more importantly, flaws. After all, it’s no accident that the facility is named Pathos.
Music and sound wise, the game is pretty stellar. It’s one of the most important games in any horror game, hearing something and not knowing what it is triggers our most primal fear, the fear of the unknown. The creaks, hisses and bangs of the facility, the splashes and whooshes of the water, the whir of machines, it all sounds as it should.
Enemies don’t fall short of course. The interference that accompanies them is not only visual, your hearing goes up and down and drowns in clicking static. Their sudden movements create high-pitched screeching that makes you grit your teeth and your back hairs stand on end. It’s completely unpleasant and completes the picture of an alien foe beyond comprehension: you can’t look at them and you can’t listen to them either.
Your own noises are a different matter. It’s like you have feet of lead, every step comes with a loud bang announcing your location. Even walking crouched for stealth is noisy. It makes sense, you are walking over a metal floor after all, but it adds some urgency to your situation if there are enemies nearby. So. Keep. Silent.
AI and verdict.
The AI of the game is quirky. You can throw and object to try and draw the attention of the enemies and it may or may not work. You trip over something and then they are upon you in moments. Sometimes you stay perfectly still and they don’t see you. Others they actively hunt you and you have to hide carefully.
Being obscured by their effects on your perception, its hard to tell apart some enemy types, so a clear strategy is sometimes out of favor and you end up going past them due to blind luck. Compared to their other games, it’s very lackluster and frustrating.
But thanks to the superb atmosphere, it’s almost trivial. You don’t spend a lot of time with enemy AI, and when you do, the creep factor outweighs the dumb factor.
The game may be a little short if you rush around, but if you take in the surroundings and the story, you are looking to 10 to 15 hours of gameplay. For $30, it’s a very fair deal for horror and science fiction fans, and if you enjoyed Penumbra or Amnesia this is a must buy.