Frictional Games are now famous for their particular brand of survival horror. You know, the type where you’re a helpless, normal person, stuck in an impossible situation with nothing to defend yourself but the strength of your legs and your mental willpower… SOMA dives right back into this comfortable genre, switching the setting from windy old castles and gore-splattered London warehouses for a futuristic, underwater base, built with the intention of saving humanity.
You are Simon Jarrett, a car crash survivor with a terminal case of brain damage, who agrees to help a scientist with his experimental scanning technology, who in turn, may just be able to save you from your unfortunate condition. While under the scan, you abruptly awake to the cold and unfamiliar surroundings of Pathos-2, an underwater facility that, let’s just say, is as welcoming as a bout of waterboarding with a side order of conger eel up the trouser leg.
It’s probably best if I stop with most of the storytelling right there, as anything more would be a terrible spoiler to what turns out to be one of the most involving and thought-provoking tales in gaming this year. If you are expecting something akin to Alien: Isolation on the ocean floor, then you’ll only be about a third of the way there. There’s definitely terrifying beasties stalking you throughout the game, but there’s also a wealth of exploration, both in terms of the station and of your own personal moral beliefs.
Pathos-2 is a network of bases, built at the bottom of the sea in case of the threat of extinction to the human race. It’s main objective is to preserve what life it can and find a way to rebuild. Simon, transported by the unknown into this futuristic nightmare, finds himself trapped and in need of escape, pushing him further into completing the station’s objectives as he looks for a way out.
Story is driven by interaction in numerous ways throughout, from reading e-mails or logs on the many computer consoles, to interacting with the bodies of crew members who have succumbed to the terrors of the deep, and not all of them physical. While there is definitely the element of horror in the sense of imminent death from any of the creepy inhabitants of Pathos-2, SOMA also drip-feeds it to you with the old moral dilemmas of grey area choices and the results of broken, fearful human minds.
When you do encounter life, it’s almost always in the form of shambling humanoids, each who have fallen to an anomalous presence that has oozed its way through the walls and minds of the station. You’ll know when you’re about to be put under a stress test when your screen flickers with feedback like a buggered monitor and the mostly non-existent soundtrack kicks in, adding to the tension of trying to weave through tight corridors and rooms with very little to hide behind while your mental health slowly deteriorates, making control of Simon more difficult.
I’ve read a few reviews so far that claim that most of this has been seen before. Of course, Frictional have used similar mechanics in their Amnesia series of games. What is great about the survival sections of SOMA, are the quirks of each enemy. On one occasion, you’ll have to sneak around in the shadows, waiting for a blob with legs to pass by and calculating your moment to dash out and get to the next semi-safe area. On another, you’ll have to play the most terrifying game of What’s the Time Mr. Wolf you have ever seen (unless you had really scary friends in school) and the hardest I found was playing a game of The Blair Witch Project, having to stand in a corner, not moving and trying to sneak a glance when the screen started to calm down a little… Only to find the bastard right behind me and waiting for another few minutes to be able to move on.
The enemy AI is magnificently thought out and it’s in searching for information in your current surroundings that will explain to you the conditions of the foe you’ll probably be facing soon. Sometimes, if you forget to do a bit of information digging, you’ll have to complete these sequences using trial and error to find out what their weakness is and how to negotiate the map. SOMA always gives you answers to its riddles if you spend the time to explore and research before you try rushing on to the next area. In fact, you should be doing this anyway as it’s the most enjoyable way to play.
Speaking of riddles, SOMA has a good number of puzzles too, none of which are amazingly difficult, but they will slow the pace of gameplay down a little and give you a bit of a breather in between dodging fiends and navigating the ocean floor. A few boil down to collection quests, sending you off into dark boiler rooms and habitation areas to hunting for mechanical parts to fix something that opens a door. Others will be more thoughtful and require finding background on crew or technical schematics to work out the more demanding conundrums. Each feel organic to the game and story however and it’s never a chore to be halted in your escape and be made to think for a while.
It’s really hard to write a review where you want to explain a little more about the characters in a game, but can’t due to potential spoilers. While you’re definitely not the only being in Pathos-2, describing any of the other presences other than the monsters would be a cardinal sin of game reviewing. Let’s just say you’ll have company along the way but I really can’t say in what form. What voice acting is there is, is done mostly well and the cast carry the story along well enough to keep you anchored to the bottom of the deep.
Graphically, SOMA is no AAA wonder. In fact it’s more like a modded Half Life 2 with bells and whistles than some of the more modern titles on the market, but it’s still beautiful and atmospheric enough not to put off the average gamer and only the ‘PC Master Race’ elite with their quad-SLI 980 TI’s will turn their noses up at the visuals. There’s a few jaggies here and there but nothing so off-putting that you’ll be bothered much. The underwater sections are by far the most eye-catching, using depth of field and physics tricks with both movement and what you see to great effect.
Musically, SOMA is a minimalist affair, usually only offering any hint of it when you’re about to get nabbed by the bastard son of Cthulhu and an extra from The Walking Dead. It’s few and far between that you’ll hear anything, but as I usually comment on when dealing with survival horror games, if the atmosphere comes from the setting and background sound rather than tension music, all the better. Less distraction to those trying to strain their ears, listening for danger around the bend.
The blips and beeps of computer hardware are adequate, as are the metallic creaking of airlock portals and mechanised doors. The sounds of shuffling feet on steel floors and the groans, moans and screeches of the denizens of the deep are perfectly fitting for SOMA’s tense adventure too. The real treat comes when clomping through the briny ‘outdoor’ areas, where everything is as muffled as you would expect for an underwater jaunt and makes your journey all the more chilling when you’re not sure whether you can actually be attacked or not… I’ll let you solve that mystery by yourself.
Wrapping things up, SOMA is certainly one of the top-tier survival horror games out this year and deserves just as much attention as the usual big hitters that seem to dominate the top tens every week. An immersive mix of terrifying visual and psychological Lovecraftian horror with enough thought-provoking material to stand with the likes of cerebral storytelling from games such as Bioshock. Don’t let anyone tell you that the survival aspects of the game are filler for the story, as both are equally as engrossing if you take the time to gather background on the evils of Pathos-2.