Platform: PS4, Xbox One (reviewed), PC
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
TL;DR: You’re not even safe in Safe Mode
Release Date: Out now
Price: £24/$30 (all platforms)
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SOMA is a game of extremes. That’s what I found out after ploughing ten horrifically enjoyable hours into the game. It’s either massive or it’s small, peaceful or chaotic, exciting or dull. Having introduced the new safe mode, a mode that – you’ve guessed it – keeps players safe from harm, players can jump back into the 2015 game and enjoy the surprisingly satisfying story that SOMA offers.
So why does SOMA work? For a game that borrows so much from Outlast – with the emphasis on running and hiding when monsters are able to eat you, SOMA does well to distance itself through a shake-up in genre. The game is still very much survival horror, though it relies on sci-fi as a means to explore a delicate balance of existentialism and conventional graphic horror. Throwing the player – who fills the shoes of Simon Jarett – into the distant future (does 89 years count as distant?) where he finds himself on a deserted station – and so adventure ensues. I don’t want to give too much away for those of you who have yet to play the game so what I will say about the plot is that it does a great job in muddying those clear-cut waters of life and death. If you’re a fan of any film or game that leaves you tired from mental athletics, then SOMA is something that’s probably going to scratch that itch.
And it’s that bloody take on a fascinating topic that tripped me up. Having got about four hours into the game, I was far more taken with how interesting SOMA was rather than scary. There was an initial roll of the eyes when the underwater setting was revealed – I still believe that anyone who plays games doesn’t really enjoy underwater settings – and when I came across the first monster, there was a light chuckle as the knock-off Big Daddy clumsily made his way through a hall.
After four hours in which these encounters were relatively minimal and I was left to enjoy the story – BAM – the lights begin to flicker, the blood stained walls and floors pulsing in and out of view, then the screams began, the walls and vents banging, and I was scared. The knock-off Big Daddies replaces with dark, gesticulating monsters, and even though I knew I couldn’t be hurt, the natural instinct of crouch-walking and stopping every time the screen flickered started.
This is how SOMA gets the horror right – through its pace. It lulls the player into a dreamy state where you’re exploring and considering what it means to be “alive” then pushes you down a dark corridor and whispers in a quiet voice: ‘go on, walk down there.’ And from there the encounters – sparse as they are – only work to shake you awake from your time thinking of the bigger questions, shaking you awake and screaming something similar to ‘I’m going to kill you to death!’ And whilst it would be easy for me to say that these encounters have little effect thanks to the safe mode – it’s only partially true. At times the surprise horror absolutely knocks you back, and at other times it’s just confusing, as you stumble around for a way to go as a monster pushes you along. Overall, the horror is a nice touch – but misplaced at times.
My only issue with SOMA was the setting. Coming across as a mixture between the space station from Dead Space and an even more dilapidated Rapture from Bioshock, what SOMA does with small spaces is great. Making your way through dank, alien-infested halls and stations is great fun. But it’s the parts in-between these stations, as you navigate through the underwater abyss that is the ocean, that lets the game down. I understand the need Soma has to give players that continuity of seeing how they get to the next station – and these trips do have some bleakly funny moments hidden within them (a talking fish goading me into a fight comes to mind) – but the spaces seem too big, in contrast with the narrow interiors that you explore. It just feels that the game plonks you down in the dark and marches you forward – or is it left, maybe right? As with any sudden appearance of a big environment – it just feels like work instead of a break from the bleak stations. I’ll admit, the open areas do at least allow for some pretty scenery, but I don’t think I would’ve been too disappointed if they’d not been there.
SOMA may be a game of extremes, and it won’t be to everyone’s liking. Some will say it loses itself in its plot rather than deliver enough horror. Others might just not like the plot, or the choice to use sci-fi horror rather than ghosts or something else. But it’s a game that does so much with its gameplay, delivering on the difficult task on balancing an interesting story with the right amount of horror. Plus, with safe mode – it doesn’t matter if you’re terrible at the run, hide, or die gameplay. The mode is a welcome inclusion that opens the game up to be enjoyed and scare players who would otherwise have to settle for watching a let’s play on YouTube. Go give the game a try if you haven’t already, and if you have – go back and try out the safe mode, it’s well worth it.
- Great pace to the horror
- The setting is put together really well in places
- A hefty plot that does a great job in approaching a heavy theme
- The sporadic deep sea treks are an unwelcome change of pace
- It’s an interesting plot, but the time it take for things to get going may put some players off
SOMA is rated 16+ in the UK and “M” for Mature in the US. And for good bloody reason, if you child can’t hold a solid conversation on what it means to exist, then they shouldn’t play this game – oh… and there’s blood and half-alive corpses everywhere… so that.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher for the purpose of review.