Psychological horror at the bottom of The Atlantic Ocean. This takes fear of the dark to a whole new level. Our review is predominantly spoiler free giving away only the first 20mins or so of gameplay.
by Bradley McManus
SOMA isn't going to jump scare you into freaking out and throwing your controller into the next room like many of the fear inducing games existing today (yes, I'm talking about Outlast). SOMA is the game which creates fear around you but rarely confronts you with it. It's the monster under your bed, the idea you're being watched and the realisation that you're certain you just saw something in the mirror. The absence makes this game scary. It's also one of the weaker parts of the game, but I'll get to that.
In SOMA you play Simon, a guy recently involved in a bad car accident and at the start of the game you are on your way to a seemingly experimental brain treatment to try and help you with the after-effects. Upon the treatment starting, you are transported to a dark, metallic & abandoned room and you have to the game begins fully. There are no monsters, only noises and for the first portion of the game you are alone. The isolation is crippling, so when you finally meet Catherine, it's a genuine relief - I'll leave plot details there because it works a lot better to discover this for yourself.
The game is made of three very distinct parts:
1. Exploring while furthering plot.
2. Progressing whilst avoiding enemies.
3. Solving small space puzzles.
The games function relies heavily on stpry and the more time you are willing to put into it the more you will get out of it. There are notes, computer files, voice messages, memories and more. The game will provide you with direction but the details in the background give you reason for the characters motivation. SOMA deals with some heavy themes based around the sense of being, identity and the presence of the mind being a separate to your body. There are very specific instances in the game which not only force you to think about your moral judgement, but question what you "believe" as reality. If you're into Philosophy there are some blatant references to the studies of Plato, Descartes and metaphysics. SOMA literally means, "the body as distinct from the soul."
In between plot there is a very slow pace to the game which is interjected by moments of panic when you are doing your best to avoid the bizarre enemies you encounter. They can only be described as a human/robot splicing gone severely wrong. For a long time, the monsters are a nuisance rather than something to be frightened of. They are actually quite predictable which also takes some of the fear away. It's disappointing that you don't get punished for getting hit - there were times when playing when I was caught and just "came to" a few meters away and had a slow effect on my character for 30 seconds. It's not scary, it's annoying. The presence of these things in relation to the plot is loose, I still don't get it. They monsters do have their moments though. When you're about 4 hours in and a couple start running instead of shambling it does take you by surprise.
The 3rd main path the game uses is various self contained puzzles. These are the weakest part of SOMA without a doubt. They are often so self contained that even if you don't really get what's going on or how to solve it, you can just click about until the solution presents itself. Then there are things which feel like puzzles but you actually just forgot to pick something up which was under your nose the entire time. At one point I really thought the game was going to force me to play a game of 2D chess and convinced myself this was the solution to the area I was stuck in. In fact, it was nothing more than a screen but I had become so accustomed to doing puzzles on them I stopped looking for another solution; a lesson learned.
This is a difficult review to write. The story is so integral that if I start pulling in how parts of it worked and failed then it will ruin your experience of the journey.
I often play games which have a purposefully slow pace and this slightly lethargic approach can be forgiven if at the end of it all, the game gives you a satisfactory ending. I finished SOMA a few days ago and honestly, I cannot get the last 5 minutes out of my head. It is wonderfully done and is more reminiscent of a Hollywood film rather than an unconventional videogame.
However, for the most part of my playthrough of SOMA I felt disappointed. The game was slow and I struggled to find the motivation to find out more. It's not something that naturally draws you to play it due to it's isolating gameplay. The more time you are willing to dig into plot the more you will enjoy it but I was skipping lots of details because I wanted to get to the endgame. In those last few minutes my opinion flipped. Everything you had been doing was building up to this moment and ,it just works. I cannot say any more than that.
The worst thing you can do is go into SOMA expecting gore and jump scares because it's a lot smarter than that. The horror in this game creeps up on you slowly rather than face you head on. The sneaking realisation of what is happening, the descent into darkness, the time spent listening only to metal and your own breathing. This is what makes SOMA unique and I can forgive it's short comings resulting in an incredible gaming experience. You might be frustrated while getting there though.