SOMA was originally released on the PS4 in 2015 to an excellent reception and several awards nominations. This month the disturbing, sci-fi, survival horror game makes its way over to Xbox One and we gave it the play through a game of this pedigree deserves.
Many people will already have played SOMA back in 2015 but there are still a fair few who never got the chance and even some who have never heard of it. I was in the ‘heard great things’ camp until we were given a copy of the Xbox One version of SOMA. I’ll start this off by saying that SOMA is a game that will be better appreciated the less you know about the story. Writing a review of the game is practically impossible to do without spoiling a lot of the content which is revealed to you with purpose and considered pacing throughout the story. So I’ll just say this: If you’ve been considering getting this game then get it. SOMA is a spectacularly unnerving and surprisingly philosophical game that deserves your attention.
If you need a bit more convincing then read on and I’ll explain my experience of SOMA. You start the game in sunny Toronto with a call from a doctor about a brain scan you need to attend after a car crash you were part of. After getting to grips with the controls in your apartment and figuring out how to get into the doctor’s office you sit yourself down in the scanner. But you wake up from the scan in an entirely alien environment. You’re immediately disoriented by the stark contrast of the friendly Canadian city with your new, darkly industrial setting. Our protagonist, Simon learns that he has awoken almost 100 years later in a decrepit, undersea research facility that’s inches away from total collapse. How Simon got there and the mystery of what happened to the facility forms the rock solid foundation for the superb narrative.
Simon meets Catherine, a resident of the Pathos II facility, pretty soon after we start to explore the environment. She gives us a sense of purpose and, frankly, someone to talk to. Pathos II is a harrowing environment populated by wrecked machinery, corpses and a mixture of the two. The dialogue between the two main characters is both excellently written and very well acted. I found Catherine’s, often impatient, encouragement of Simon to complete quite terrifying tasks or accept extremely profound philosophical positions without making a fuss quite endearing. But there are also sinister undertones to her character as you find, from the various memos, journals and recordings found in the facility, that Catherine wasn’t entirely well liked on Pathos II. There’s a lot to the facility with a huge amount of attention given to making it feel like a functional, lived in world that has suffered a catastrophe.
The game play of SOMA has some elements of the ‘walk around and look at stuff’ simulator that’s been popularised over the last couple of years (by Frictional Games to some extent). But SOMA separates itself from the mediocre, indie, flashes in pans by providing much more involved game play. The puzzles that Simon has to solve are beautifully woven into the narrative by often involving the sort of trial and error you would expect from a completely displaced book shop clerk forced to reroute power substations in an underwater research base. But more impressive are the situations where Simon is forced to confront deeply thoughtful moral questions; sometimes to progress and sometimes purely to test your own sense of morality.
SOMA uses its puzzles and progression blockers in the same way that it uses the documents and recorded conversations to make the player consider concepts like suicide, what it means to be human, what it means to be alive and if it matters how we really perceive the world? I found myself genuinely satisfied solving some of the basic physical puzzles which involve connecting up power cables or breaking through windows due to the trigger based control system. It gave a much more kinetic feeling to interacting with the environment although I did find myself jumping in place rather than opening doors a couple of times due to the unfamiliar button layout.
Enemy design is another point where SOMA really stands out from the crowd. There are only a few creatures in the game that can actually harm you but each of them present an unsettling image. The entire facility is covered in what looks like a bio-mechanical, luminescent cancer and the malicious entities that stalk its depths are like grotesque walking tumours. The stop motion way they move has to be the most disturbing element. But Frictional Games’ stroke of genius with the enemy design is to make it so looking directly at the creatures is damaging to Simon. This makes it very difficult to get an accurate picture in your mind of what is hunting you and the unknown is the essence of all fear.
The flip-side of the inclusion of these haunting beasts is that the actual process of avoiding the enemies is frustrating at times. The usual principles of watching for an opening and sneaking through while making sure not to knock over a pile of rusty tools and sound the dinner bell was fun enough. But there are a couple of enemy types that I genuinely never figured out how to get past. Luckily it takes a few failures to actually kill Simon and send you back to the last checkpoint but the enemy design is essentially only really strong in the audio, visual areas and falls down in the player engagement field.
Where the Xbox One version of SOMA brings something new to the table is with the new ‘Safe Mode’. This feature allows the player to switch on a mode where the horrifying denizens of Pathos II are no longer hostile. This lets you experience the tremendous enemy design while not having to get frustrated with the occasionally sluggish game play. But really, I should say I had more fun hiding in dark corners from these monstrosities than I got annoyed by it.