- Posted by Carl Lyon
- On October 13, 2015
- 0 Comments
Frictional Games has all but rewritten the book on survival horror. Their first major game, Penumbra, quickly abandoned the concept of combat for a more vulnerable vibe, which they honed to a killing edge in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. With their new game, SOMA, they’re transplanting the core mechanic of Amnesia to a more science-fiction setting, and adding a much more cerebral story to try and frighten players on a different level.
I am intentionally going to be as vague as possible about SOMA’s story, as experiencing every twist and turn, every question and answer, is truly what makes it exceptional. I will say that you play a man named Simon Jarrett, and that you find yourself on an undersea base that will become the aquatic backdrop for one of the most grueling existential crises committed to any medium. Yes, SOMA offers up more traditional frights with twisted creatures and nerve-wracking moments of white-knuckle terror, but its most effective horror involves getting inside the player’s head and asking them questions that should never be asked. By the end of its 10-plus hour story, the game will have you thinking about the definition of humanity, what will make you gain or lose your own identity, and what you’re willing to do to preserve it.
It’s also a game that forces you to do things that are morally repulsive, giving the player a rare emotion for a game: guilt. In order to proceed through one area, you have to restore power to a tram. Unfortunately, that power is being diverted to a woman’s bio-organic life support system, which gives you only one ugly option: unplug her or don’t progress. It’s the sort of moment that adds incredible weight to death in a game. You aren’t dispatching a physical threat through superior firepower, you pulling the plug on a woman dancing on the razor’s edge between life and death, begging for help out of her painful predicament.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of more traditional frights. SOMA’s industrial corridors are populated by predators that have their own unique behaviors to contend with. The most fascinating and frightening are the Faceless, blind mutants that hunt by sound. With no means of defending yourself (a mechanic that will be familiar to veterans of Frictional Games’ other titles), you’re forced to cram yourself into tight corners and stay perfectly still, lest an errant footfall reveal your position. While it’s not the first time I’ve seen something like this in a game, it’s handled with such efficacy in its tension-building that it becomes truly remarkable. If someone were to use this mechanic and make a game based off of Armand de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series…
When it comes to presentation, SOMA is without equal. Graphically, the game flirts with photorealism, keeping its pipe-packed corridors grounded in realism, while keeping its more fantastic elements sparse enough that they feel just as genuine. Robots are clunky and industrial so that they work from an engineering standpoint, and the game’s near-future technology just makes sense. It’s easy in speculative science-fiction to build up technology unnecessarily—a holographic interface, for example—but SOMA opts for things that feel like a natural progression of current tech. Computers are controlled with simple touchscreen interfaces and data is stored on big, clunky cartridges. It may seem like window dressing, but the plausibility of the game’s environments make it so much easier to become truly immersed in it. This is especially true when you walk across the ocean floor to travel between bases, where schools of mutated fish flit in and out of your field of view, masked by an aquatic haze.
Audio design is similarly spectacular, with the sounds of the creatures standing out as something to truly fear. There’s a degree of remaining humanity under their guttural shrieks that reminds you of what you’re dealing with and makes your skin crawl. Music is subtle, but it hits some fantastic highlights, heightening the mood and flirting with some synthy, John Carpenter-esque overtures that work beautifully in the clunky futurism of the game.
If there’s one caveat, it would be the game’s performance on the Playstation 4. While I’m sure that the game performs beautifully on a high-end PC, the load times on the PS4 were frequent and long, and the occasional hard stutter reared its ugly head here and there. I suppose that’s the tradeoff to be able to play this one in the living room.
SOMA is now available on Playstation 4 and PC.