By: Brian Gunn
Frictional Games has some big shoes to fill with their latest release, SOMA. While the Swedish developers have been plugging away since 2007, it wasn’t until the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010 that they received mainstream attention — it even became a sleeper hit, eventually carving out a reputation as one of the scariest games ever made.
Frictional have been relatively quiet since then. For nearly five years they’ve worked on and SOMA. Is it the Amnesia successor? Or just another entry in an increasingly crowded first-person horror genre?
SOMA has relatively simple controls, as it’s a horror entry that skews more toward the adventure side than survival. You’ll move, sprint, crouch and interact all with the usual buttons, and really that’s about it; they can even be rebound as you see fit. SOMA marks the debut of the developers on console with the PS4 version, and the controls translate well to controller.
Visually, SOMA will likely get a lot of comparisons to BioShock, being set in an decrepit underwater facility. Plus, both games tend to focus on a strong art style rather than groundbreaking graphics. Texture work is actually a bit middling, including a few objects that seem rather low resolution, but the game manages to hide them with clever tricks of darkness and lighting fairly often.
Some of the game’s areas feel similar, but as the chaos ramps up, they all gain their own unique identities. There are a few frame rate issues, mainly when the game is loading a new area, but thankfully these are rare.
Audio is a big part of any horror game, and that is no exception here. Music is largely absent for the majority of the game, often filling the air with silence or the rhythmic pumping of machinery to set the mood. Things go bump in the night all around you, giving positional audio cues, so a good sound system greatly enhances the mood.
Voice acting feels a little stiff sometimes, particularly from the lead character Simon, but he grew on me over time, and most of the supporting cast is fairly good too, particularly the character Catherine.
Simon is having a bad day. He has to go to the doctor to have a head scan after a car accident, and it suddenly gets worse when, after that visit, he wakes up in an underwater facility that seems abandoned of all life. How did he get there, and what exactly is going on? This is the central mystery of SOMA, and the core driving force of the game. It is very dependent on its plot, and to go much further into specifics would spoil the experience.
SOMA is heavy on environmental storytelling and audio logs to frame what has happened in the past. It ruminates on themes like what defines humanity and actually tackles the central themes fairly maturely, something that’s a bit rare in video game narratives. I found myself engrossed more and more in the story as it went along, and it’s very well paced, aside from a slow first hour.
The story is going to be the central draw for most people, but SOMA isn’t a walking simulator, and it does have a decent amount of traditional gameplay. That being said, it’s still fairly reliant on the Frictional formula, though. You won’t be facing anything down in combat. Instead, you’ll need to run and hide if any threats are nearby.
Of course, the game often challenges you to make progress with a balance of movement and hiding, as enemies often tend to hang out in mission-critical areas. As the game goes on, it throws some twists on the enemy encounters so they don’t all feel the same, granting them new strengths as well as weaknesses to exploit.
In the times you aren’t fleeing deadly abominations or listening to audio logs, the game has some fairly basic puzzles to solve. Often something is broken and you’ll need to venture off to find parts or turn something else on. There’s an inventory, but you never really have to use it as everything is used automatically in the correct areas.
These aren’t anything too hard to figure out, and most players with average puzzle-solving skills will breeze by them, though there is one that may stick with you — albeit more because of its horrifying connotations rather than brilliant puzzle design.
Eventually, you’ll see a pattern developing, where you move to a new area, explore the story bits and then come the horror elements. In these story moments you’ll often face a variety of puzzles, most of which aren’t too challenging. This blueprint can make SOMA feel a bit formulaic, though after a tense encounter with enemies that rush of relief when you arrive at a safe moment feels great.
SOMA is a lot more linear and story driven than the developer’s previous games, and this can undercut the scares a bit. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some terrifying moments, but it is unlikely to be the sort of hit that launches a dozen screaming YouTube channels like Amnesia. While SOMA might not have snatched the crown for scariest game of all time, the strength of the story and pacing allows it to stand on its own.