Imagine facing an army of your worst fears, totally alone, where your only options are to run, hide, or close the door and hope you don’t get chomped.
This is what SOMA, the latest first person incontinence simulator from the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent is all about. Though as I discovered, this game’s plentiful scares are a sideshow to the real treat: a gripping story that will seize your mind and refuse to let go.
Without a doubt this is a contender for best indie game of the year, and one which everyone, even those that usually snub survival horror, should consider adding to their collection.
If these walls could talk… oh, wait, they do
If you’ve seen a trailer for SOMA, you’ll have encountered PATHOS II, the game’s ocean floor facility. Monstrous mechanical corpses and insane androids decorate the halls and an ever encroaching biomechanical growth pushes through every nook and cranny in a kind of Blade Runner meets The Thing mashup. Something has gone terribly awry in the classic 'everyone's dead and something awful killed them' sort of way.
You are Simon, a man who awakes inside PATHOS II with no memory of how he got there, and no conception of the nightmarish surroundings he finds himself in. Like a lot of games post-BioShock, SOMA is a game of two narratives: the present, and the past. As Simon uncovers his own hellish circumstances he also slowly unfurls the story of PATHOS II and how it descended into chaos.
To this end the game lays on a feast of environmental storytelling. Simon can ‘connect’ with a variety of digital objects on the station in order to hear audio recordings of past events. In much the same vein as BioShock’s ubiquitous audio tapes, pivotal moments in the history of Pathos II are replayed, each completing a small piece of Soma’s puzzle.
Truely grim detective
Speaking of puzzles, there are also a great deal of these about that vary from the 'fetch and carry' variety to more traditional logical conundrums. Most of these are solid, if largely forgettable. I suspect that, tasks like loading a series of files in exactly the right sequence or hunting for access codes have simply been added to give Simon things to do whilst he's discovering more about the world around him.
When pursuing the latter, the experience is refreshingly tactile, as most objects can be picked up and rotated to be examined from all angles. If like myself, your curiosity must be satisfied at every turn, then you’ll undoubtedly scour every room and flip objects around for clues relating to the absent crew of PATHOS II.
Only some of this Nancy Drew-ary is compulsory. It’s entirely possible to jump through the game focusing only upon your current objective, but detective work is SOMA's raison d'être. You’ll feel compelled to learn the full scale of the savagery that has befallen PATHOS II.
Behind closed doors
When Simon isn’t rummaging for lost treasures, or trying to find out what the bejeesus is going on, he’s generally being chased by something utterly horrifying.
As in Amnesia, SOMA features no weapons, no real escape mechanisms, and plays out like a game of hide and seek where Simon must move from room to room, avoiding his pursuers entirely.
These cat and mouse skirmishes are designed to render you as vulnerable as possible. Levers, doors, and cranks which often separate you from an approaching horror are sluggish to control, often requiring several inarticulate sweeps of the mouse to change position. You'll find yourself whimpering as you fumble desperately to avoid the 7ft of nightmare fuel charging up behind you.
To make matters worse, lockers and the desks don’t provide cover of any kind. Crouching reduces the amount of noise Simon makes while walking, and staying out of your pursuer’s field of view generally avoids trouble, but significant movement through levels often consists of frenetic dashing, followed by a heaving of the mouse to remove whatever obstacle stands in your way.
These hunts never quite live up to the cleverness of engagements between Ripley and the Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation, where the rules of the game constantly change as her bag of tricks expands. Here there are no flamethrowers, no distracting noisemakers and no other people to use as bait.
Instead SOMA’s horror segments utilise the same mechanics throughout (leg it, hide, peek round corner, leg it again, hide) with almost no variation, causing encounters to become progressively less spine-chilling as you become intimately familiar with the rules of the chase. For the most part however, the scares on offer are intense enough to satisfy those looking for a fright.
A tale well told
SOMA is a neon-lit reminder that when implemented correctly, games can tell stories magnificently. I desperately want to relay the whole journey to you, but one of the game's great strengths is how it keeps the player in a state of ignorance as its tangled threads slowly unfold. It’s a cracking shame, as this is SOMA's strongest asset, and all I can really divulge is that it’s bloody fantastic.
Several times I was unexpectedly snared by narrative tricks so dastardly that any sense of horror was temporarily suspended by glee at having been so thoroughly manipulated. Frictional Games is masterful at wielding first person perspective to maximum effect, and each of the game's most cunning moments push your buttons in the way a third person game would simply be unable to.
What I can say is this: SOMA hits all the bases from voice acting, to script, to atmosphere. Admittedly, there are persistent problems with pacing when you are forced to slowly trudge through disproportionately large underwater environments that are mostly devoid of features. When indoors, Simon and his companion Catherine are voiced with nuance and their journey picks up speed. I cared sincerely for these people and it made the highs and lows of the trek through the aptly named PATHOS II all the more heart-rending.
Of course, no game can sustain perpetual doom and gloom, and there are segments where the narrative adopts a calmer, more philosophical stance. This is another particular talent the game displays: deft changes in tone. Very few games traverse such a broad emotional range as this, but SOMA exists in the good company of games like The Walking Dead and The Last of Us, which are veritable chameleons of atmospheric charge.
SOMA’s complete experience is not only engaging but wrangles with big questions in the way that only great science fiction can. What does it mean to be human? How do I know that I’m alive? Is there any grand order to the universe? It's never an easy ride, but it is a rewarding and terrifying one.
Whilst its philosophical themes keep your brain in ‘does not compute’ mode, you’ll also be treated to a minimalistic room-to-room horror chaser. It’s an unusual mix, but one that I thoroughly recommend you try.