SOMA Review: Beyond the Sea
Ben Sheene / Oct 29th, 2015 No Comments
The first time players plunged into the depths of Rapture in Bioshock a feeling of wonder should have swept over them. The slow descent of the bathysphere gave way to a massive city, flooded with neon lights and all manner of ocean life. It looked prosperous, inviting, futuristic–a haven for mankind underneath the sea if Andrew Ryan was to be believed. None of us could have predicted the horrors that lied in wait when the truth was revealed.
SOMA often invokes similar moments of terrifying splendor. Much of that could be attributed to the game’s aquatic setting or the decay where life once flourished. But a larger part of that comparison are the questions Frictional Games puts to players. It is a game that uses a gripping story of science fiction as a vessel to challenge the ideas of what it means to be human and the fears of advanced technology. Though far from flawless, it’s in those moments where SOMA grips the player and becomes more than just a game.
Brave New World
SOMA is an experience that thrives on player discovery. The story is a slow burn that rewards through the drip feed of progression. As such, it’s truly hard to dive into the story without spoiling a plot detail that is a powerful moment of revelation in the narrative. Going into SOMA nearly blind is one of the best ways to become wrapped up in the many curveballs thrown.
Carefully sidestepping the opening of SOMA, the game truly begins with protagonist Simon Jarrett waking up in the PATHOS-II, an underwater research facility. Neither Simon nor the the player has any idea how he ended up there. It quickly becomes apparent that the facility is in disarray and void of human life. Soon, Simon begins to communicate with a woman named Catherine who is located in a different station of the facility. Reaching her brings the hope of answers.
Simon’s journey, like those found in many other games, is not merely one of getting from point A to point B. The answers he so desperately seeks are not so straightforward and some danger, locked door, or other game mechanic ensures the ride will be rough. But Simon is not a silent protagonist, a husk for players to pour their feelings into without pause. His initial confusion mirrors our own. We know where Simon was moments before he woke up in this foreign place, so what explanation could there be? His pleas for answers from Catherine match our own goals to progress the story and figure out what happened to everyone on PATHOS-II.
The narrative in SOMA that is slowly unspooled for the player is both enjoyable and engaging. It may be easy to say Frictional Games has plucked inspiration from several sources but like many of the best tales, it feels unique despite the twangs of familiarity. The PATHOS-II seems to be infected with black tendrils that would bring a tear to H.R. Giger’s eye. Slick with a dark substance and leeching off the facility, it’s the first sign that things are going to hell and it makes the player question if something alien has gotten into the woodwork. Not far into the game Simon meets a robot convinced it is a human. Despite being constructed of whirring motors, fused with the creepy tendrils, and obviously severely broken, the robot thinks it’s just a guy with an injured leg.
The Human Factor
This is not the only encounter of its kind during SOMA. While the game answers some of the most pressing questions–what the hell happened, where all the people are, what’s going on above the water’s surface, how Simon got there–it’s the big, broad strokes that are going to hit players the most. A decent amount of world building is done through items players can interact with. From journals to computers to photographs, a deeper story is told that fills in blanks for the player. I only wish Frictional had included some way to revisit these items through an in-game menu for a reference point.
By the time SOMA ends players will have been asked multiple times what being a human really means. What constitutes being truly alive or dead? Can there be two of the same selves? Again, it’s hard to say much without spoiling the story but several times players are given a choice to make. Rather than having a dramatic effect on the story, these choices are meant as a kind of personality litmus test. Does what you’ve encountered in the game make you sympathetic toward robot-humans?
One issue players may have later in the game is Simon himself. Progression often rewards the player with plot development but there are a few key moments in the game where Simon stubbornly refuses to accept the cold, hard facts he has been presented with. Personally, it broke my immersion but it was justifiable if you can completely sympathize with the awful situation Simon has found himself in. But none of this took away from the incredible ending of the game. At the same time dark and uplifting, it truly challenges players to dwell on the journey they just went through.
Terror of the Deep
Players familiar with Frictional Games are definitely going to wonder if SOMA is in the similar survival horror vein as Amnesia. Though elements of that game can be found, the experience is definitely less straightforward terrifying. The sense of dread comes less from actual scares and more from the horrifying situation.
The only time survival becomes an issue in SOMA is the handful of encounters with the game’s version of monsters. The first challenge players come across is simply staying out of view from a hulking robot. Later, a humanoid creature with lights shooting out of its head requires players not to look directly at it or they will be seen. It’s a tense section of hiding and staring at the floor, not knowing if the enemy lurks right around the tight corridors.
Enemy design is creative but with no method of fending off these creatures, it forces players to run and hide. Being defenseless is nothing new but in SOMA it can result in tedium and frustration. Early on, the game suggests throwing items to make noise and create a distraction, it was a tactic that never seemed to make a difference for me. One enemy had me sneaking past it because sounds triggered it to attack. I would inch forward, stop, let it calm down, inch forward, rinse, and repeat. Not a fun strategy.
Late in the game I came across a singular enemy that didn’t seem to have a trick to it or anything. I just needed to reach a door and hope the monster was far enough away so the door could slowly open and I could reach a ladder. At one point I hid behind a table as static slowly filled the screen (SOMA’s way of telling players that danger is close). Minutes began to pass as the monster paced around the room I was in, its AI pattern locked to my general position. No distractions worked, I was just forced to wait. Not fun a strategy either. Running seems like an option but after being spotted most enemies are just too fast and catch up in no time. A viable strategy is to use a death abuse in the game. Players can be attacked once and respawn extremely close to where they were; a second attack results in death and being completely reverted to a checkpoint. Exhausted from dancing around with this monster and wanting to move on to more plot development, I ran as close to the door as I could, got attacked, and came back to life near my destination and my friend far away.
The Vastness of Space
Sitting around 12 hours, SOMA is a fairly lengthy experience. When not exploring the PATHOS-II or hiding from deep-sea terrors, there isn’t much else to do. Very few puzzles fill in the gaps and only two require more than a few though-out button presses or environment interaction. What this leaves are multiple instances of the game feeling long in the tooth.
The story may be appropriately paced but the line in which players tackle it is not so much. Since walking is one of the chief gameplay mechanics, it’s natural to expect rewards to be tucked away in an empty room. The few collectibles that expand the story are mainly tied to logical paths near the main objective. I appreciated Frictional Games not forcing waypoints and any sort of UI on players, allowing us to discover things in a natural way. Despite that, there are still sections of the game that could have been pared down to feel less open and more directed. When players don’t have many mechanics to contend with, it doesn’t make sense to devalue their time with long stints of walking that don’t net any sort of reward, story or otherwise.
Walking through the PATHOS-II I felt like I was taken back to the Ishimura in Dead Space. That haunted space station was an entity unto itself with formerly functional spaces and the ghosts of the lives that once occupied it still lingering. SOMA drowned me in isolation, echoing Isaac Clarke’s classic journey through hell. Though Frictional Games could have figured out a few more things to break up the pacing, SOMA’s story is every bit as terrifying as what was found in Rapture and the Ishimura.
Days after completion I was still searching my brain for my own answers to what the game asked. I reflected on what Simon had gone through and what I had gone through as a player. Being lowered into the most claustrophobic depths of the planet, the game really crawls under the skin. What secrets does the world hide when seemingly every human is gone? What really is a human anyway? SOMA gladly keeps you guessing.
SOMA was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a code for the game provided by the publisher.
tags: Frictional Games , ps4 , review , SOMA , SOMA Review