Description official descriptions
The Swedish game studio Frictional Games continues its tradition in the horror genre (Amnesia, Penumbra series) with SOMA. This time, the player is presented with a science fiction story in which the protagonist, Simon Jarret, is suddenly transported to an abandoned facility the moment he goes through a brain scan. After surviving a car accident with severe brain injuries as a result, Simon accepts to have his brain scanned with a new, experimental technology. While he starts the day in his apartment in Toronto, the scan takes him to the mysterious PATHOS-II facility mere hours later.
Much like its predecessors, SOMA's gameplay is built from monster encounters, puzzle solving and the exploration of mysterious game world and plot. Similar to Amnesia or the last two Penumbra games, Simon in unarmed and every encounter requires the player to avoid direct contact with the hostile creatures of PATHOS-II. As for the puzzles, Frictional reuses in part the capabilities of its in-house engine, the HPL engine (on its third main version), to manipulate every object in the world as if the mouse were a virtual hand that the player inserts in the game world. However, this time around puzzles are mainly about interacting with computer terminals, leaving object manipulation more for world exploration.
Credits (Windows version)
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Average score: 84% (based on 36 ratings)
Average score: 4.3 out of 5 (based on 33 ratings with 2 reviews)
A Survival Horror protagonist wakes up with amnesia. It’s become so clichéd it feels as if there’s a psychological rehab clinic somewhere for all of those traumatized protagonists to help them finally regress back into their suppressed memories. It’s even the title of a now legendary Survival Horror game made by the very same developer of SOMA (Amnesia: The Dark Descent). Amnesia, or at the very least, a pervasive sense of confusion, is a necessary step in disempowering a player to the point where you can attempt to scare them senseless; although the amount of times we’ve seen this worn-out plot device has meant it’s no longer enough to just be an amnesiac desperately trying to rebuild their lost past, like it was in the early days with 1998’s Sanitarium. Games where amnesia figures prominently in the protagonist’s adventure have transcended the lowly motivations of simply discovering the reasons behind a player character’s nightmarish fate to more commonly, overcoming and turning back the horrifying cataclysm that has been unleashed on whatever context and characters are present, and to this end you can peruse such titles as: Silent Hill 2, System Shock 2, Amnesia: The Dark Descent (from here on in referred to as ATDD), Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Alan Wake, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl just to name a few.
SOMA half-heartedly presents its premise of an underwater amnesiac that may or may not be who he thinks he is, as a kind of new frontier in Survival Horror. It may be a new frontier for Frictional Games but in reality, these ideas are hardly breaking new ground. Many commentators and critics were quick to make comparisons with BioShock's Rapture and for good reason: salvation for an oceanic utopia turned dystopia, both manned by an outcast intelligentsia, is essentially both games in a nutshell, though the similarities also extend to the faux-philosophical pontificating that never really seems to climax in both titles as well.
Simon Jarrett is a terminally-afflicted man whose last hope at recovering from traumatic brain damage is an experimental, neurological brain analysis pioneered by cutting-edge research which seemingly offers a virtual, digital emulation of one’s entire brain, so that all available treatment paths can be explored without any physical experimentation. Volunteering for untested medical procedures using experimental technology, you say? What could possibly go wrong? Sure enough Simon awakens from a supposedly routine procedure to find himself in a dystopian, Sci-Fi nightmare that is severely divorced from his former, cosy, Toronto-based existence. Along the lines of Captain America being frozen in suspended animation in the Arctic for decades and having to relearn a 70 year-long, crash course in human history; Simon’s rude awakening is made all the more jarring as he’s forced to come to terms with an 89-year timeline gap between him checking in for a "brain scan" in 2015 and waking up in 2104.
Not to mention the small nuance that a chunk of interstellar rock probably the size of a large city impacted the Earth during his hibernation and left nothing intact in its wake, save for Simon and whatever else happens to be lurking a couple of hundred metres below the Atlantic in a mysterious research facility. Quite a wake-up call for the guy who was already at death's door. To top it all off, human brains have been rendered fairly obsolete in the future, as the transhumanist prophecy has come well into fruition in 2104 and Simon’s organic, fleshy body and traditional perception of self are rather out-dated, thanks to mind uploading, surrogate robotic exoskeletons and a virtual reality simulation so convincing that the entire experience leaves you wondering if it actually is one big Matrix-like parallel.
Without really wanting to spoil too much more or ramble on too much more about the contrived story in this juncture of the review (I’ll save it for "The Bad" section); in short: there’s a clandestine, isolated research facility named PATHOS-II broken into stations connected by various modes of transport, an omni-present and highly suspect A.I. called “WAU” (WArden Unit) that appears to have gone rogue, an existential threat to humanity at large for which a solution has to be formulated by the most unsuitable guy for the job (i.e. you), shadowy corporations conducting scientific research (read: playing God) at the expense of human lives and a lone “human” sidekick guiding the player for reasons unknown.
Does any of this sound remotely familiar? Of course it does, because I’ve just described the plot of about a dozen or more Survival Horror titles.
The gameplay approaches a parody of Survival Horror tropes even more so, reading like a checklist of every popular element featured in a horror game of the last 10 years. Stumbling through dark corridors looking for an exit? Check. Nothing to fight back with? Check. Puzzle-solving? Check. Audio logs containing either exposition, screams or directions? Check. A side character that blabbers into your ear? Check. Being forced to take frequent detours from your main objective? Check. Every too-good-to-be-true, chance of salvation blowing up in your face? Check.
I hate to be critical from the get-go, but this vaunted title delivered by what is Survival Horror’s child-prodigy developer had much promise in its misanthropic thematic angles and somewhat unique setting and character profile, but ultimately, I came away with the distinct impression of an unfinished, wholly derivative and unsatisfying experience. Part of it probably has to do with ATDD's indirect successor, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, being developed by British indie studio The Chinese Room (creators of the emotional Dear Esther), who evidently gave the hardcore horror a backseat to story-telling and stylistic flamboyance. There is a marked shift from Frictional’s previous body of work which went straight for the jugular and simply attempted to out-do each scare more than the last, to now having SOMA pulling punches and trying to give the player respite and time to wonder about supposedly moving stories.
I’ll dispense with what I liked anyway, though I should state it did take much concerted looking for things I like, to actually find enough to write about.
The introduction (specifically the part where Simon awakens in PATHOS-II in 2104) was pulled off with a no-holds barred approach that makes Simon Jarrett’s timid, nice-guy demeanour and the story’s innocuous opening feel dangerously at odds with the entombed, underwater derelict that he finds himself in with no obvious explanation. Openings like this in Survival Horror really let the anxiety seep right into your brain, and Survival Horror openings really do make or break the game in my experience. Paradoxically, I still don’t think SOMA “made it” into a definitive Survival Horror game for my tastes, but I can’t deny that the opening levels really have you wondering what the hell to expect next and honestly, they had me believing for quite a while that I was embarking on another truly bone-chilling Frictional title.
The gameplay alternates between a dichotomy we’ve seen become fairly cemented (and predictable) in Survival Horror: horror sections with you being forced to improvize desperate escapes out of "chase sequences" and the story/exploration sections, with you talking a more relaxed but still cautious stroll through environments interacting with objects, inventory items and story delivery methods while getting an occasional tingle up your spine from a bump in the dark.
Simon’s female accomplice Catherine Chun, usually pops up whenever this awkward story, exploration and philosophy gambit commences, to offer either: a rundown of new objectives in the next station of the facility, a helping-hand at solving puzzles and unlocking sealed doors or piloting some mode of transport to progress to their next objective. What surprised me the most is just how effectively SOMA kept the player fearful of enemy appearances, even when it was almost glaringly obvious that you were firmly in a story/exploration interlude. The guessing game of when to let your guard down and tune into SOMA’s deliberation on consciousness, reality and human identity and when to be in fight-or-flight mode gives the player something to continually evaluate as the game progresses, which does go some way to making up for a lack of strategic planning due to an absence of inventory management or any monitoring of player stats or external variables (like the motion tracker in Alien: Isolation or sanity in ATDD).
I do have to admit there were some genuinely unnerving (though brief) moments in the game that would have to rank quite highly in my personal Survival Horror hall of fame. Particularly the enemies that stood motionless, almost oblivious to your presence even when you looked directly at them, only to have them instantly run you down the moment you turned your back. Then there were the mutated Anglerfish in the abyssal zone that chased you through a network of catacombs; quite a shock to discover that faint light source in the distance is actually not one of those comforting underwater beacons that scare away mutated aquatic life, but in fact, a bloated, disfigured, gape-jawed menace. Nice.
The game also does a wonderful job at masking its linearity with seemingly multi-pronged pathways awaiting the player at the beginning of each new section of the game. In many of the “chase sequence” levels where you’re being hunted by the menacing, A.I.-corrupted humans, you have little time to find out how far the rabbit hole really goes and it gives a sense of the level design being far larger and more complex than it actually is. As you feverishly scurry along corridors to narrow-mindedly avoid death, you peer off into maze-like architecture and grand chambers which hint at a vastly labyrinthine world that you simply don’t have time to soak in. I found myself frequently missing out on investigating each and every room of a particular site as the enemies were sometimes relentlessly fixated on particular part of a level. As the game progresses however, you begin to realize that there is only one correct way to proceed through each level and most of the areas that are off-the-beaten track don’t contain any significant story elements or items; though moderate exploration is rewarded with certain scrawled notes or diary entries, manuals, audio logs, messages on computer terminals, personal effects, and interesting level design.
The illusion of PATHOS-II being a vast, sprawling, underwater scientific community teeming with secrets was at least maintained for most of my first play-through and for that SOMA deserves recognition, as linearity can often be the bane of a Survival Horror game.
Speaking of the underwater sprawl of PATHOS-II, the game thankfully doesn’t degenerate into a mind-numbing, corridor-fest of claustrophobia, with Simon taking to the deep blue multiple times in journeying between the 8 different sites that compromise PATHOS-II. These underwater diving expeditions that have you navigating the sea floor and descending into the abyssal zone in the later stages, offer up some of the best vistas in the game, to the point where you could be forgiven for forgetting you’re in a Survival Horror game at all. Sections like these sea floor excursions have SOMA trying its hand at diversifying its genre, but being mostly devoid of much actual story progression or serious gameplay, they’re best experienced as purely visual showcases and hauntingly beautiful metaphors for the abyss of existentialism that the game descends into along with Simon, who becomes more and more out of his depth, both figuratively and literally.
Commendation also has to be given to the way SOMA gracefully balanced difficulty and never veered into sheer, repetitious frustration nor became a game that played itself. For a game with no selectable difficulty, the puzzle, platforming and enemy encounters always seemed to fall into the “Goldilocks zone" of being just difficult enough to make you think about ALT-tabbing into a browser for a walkthrough but not difficult enough to actually make you go through with it as the amount of trial-and-error is kept to a low, single-digit figure and in fact I replayed maybe 2 or 3 sections of the game in total, which somehow felt strange for a Survival Horror game.
My biggest gripe with the game, as the title of this review would suggest, is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Survival Horror? First-person exploration? Adventure? Pretentious indie philosophical-preacher-on-rails? Just "art"? It does none of these motifs justice. It’s as disjointed and morally ambiguous as the corrupt A.I. in PATHOS-II.
The story is a mixed bag to put it simply. This is a game that tosses out many grandiose and philosophical Sci-Fi concepts and themes that have long occupied the minds of writers and scientific thinkers and stimulated lively debates, and it certainly doesn’t shy away from asking questions and proffering theories on elemental, existential attributes of “human-ness” that few other games would bother touching upon for fear of simply floundering in the depths of intellectualism. Now that is a commendable effort but unfortunately the game fails to engender any meaningful connections to the characters that present these concepts in the game and moreover completely neglects all character development after a certain point, leaving the player to sort of mull over things on their own accord while the game takes random pages from the annals of Sci-Fi lore and throws them into the abyss of the player’s mind.
The most loathsome culprit for my jaded view of the lacklustre characters is the God-awful voice-acting. There is a distinctly casual and apathetic quality to the delivery of dialogue that doesn’t ring true at all for what the characters should be feeling. Given the heavy subject matter and events discussed by the characters in SOMA and the terrifying prospect of human continuity hinging on a fragile knife’s edge after an extinction-level-event, not to mention the uniquely disturbing way people’s loved ones have been essentially “Borg-ified” by a malevolent, ethereal presence like in Star Trek, you’d really want voice-actors who can pull off that emotional timbre deserving of such dark themes.
Even far more casual, action-oriented horror titles nailed that combination of frantic, panicky voice-acting heard in audio logs of poor souls being devoured by God knows what and the fragile, weak-voices of people drowning in solitude and depression as they recount how hopeless the situation has become, like in Dead Space or BioShock. Instead, everyone at PATHOS-II spits out lines like they really couldn’t be any more indifferent and to top it all off, they have these juvenile and uncultivated voices really not becoming of any academic or intellectual types, that project no measure of personality or charisma (like you’d hear in the 1990s when in-house staff members of the developer would pitch in on the voice-work). It was like hearing bored high school students reading out loud in class; I actually only wanted to read subtitles with no voice audio after a while, especially whenever I was subjected to Catherine’s voice, who verges on some kind of Valley Girl or Reality-TV bimbo, brand of nails-on-a-chalkboard speech that makes her seem like an idiot quite frankly.
The now done-to-death audio logs, voice recordings and journal/e-mail messages we’ve seen in games like this are SOMA’s go-to-method for bringing back to life the history of PATHOS-II but they fall absolutely flat in telling anything meaningful about the characters or the facility other than it all went horribly wrong. SOMA insists on repeating this message despite it being painfully obvious from your first baby-steps on the deck that it’s all gone to shit.
A lot of this started reminding me of Frictional's Penumbra: Overture and a much-criticized aspect of the game: the forced concern about Philip’s dad and the miners who wrote excessively-long letters about their own imminent deaths; aspects most players really couldn’t give a damn about, that became a complete hindrance to the game’s creepy atmosphere.
The staff of PATHOS-II have no discernible identities per se, they’re only names seen in excessive lists on computer terminals and brief voices that progressively blend together to further your indifference to them; with only a few actually shown in photographs, videos or their lifeless corpses being discovered by the player. To paraphrase Stalin's famous quote: the death of one is a tragedy, the death of many is a statistic; and that’s exactly why building any sense of attachment to their plight ends up being impossible when dozens and dozens of meaningless names are referenced ad nausem while only a handful are fleshed-out via personal biographies and their relationships to other characters. Even then the game devotes very little time to explaining the motivations for some of the character’s wide-reaching actions; this is very true of Dr. Johan Ross, who functions as some kind of antagonist for a portion of the game, haunting Simon in hallucinations, then revealing himself to actually be guiding Simon to rid PATHOS-II of WAU’s malignant presence and yet how or why this twist occurred is left unrevealed.
Similarly many questions linger about how and why PATHOS-II and WAU came into existence in the first place.
There are hints at some kind of internationally coordinated effort that pooled together brilliant scientific and engineering minds, sent them to the bottom of the Atlantic somewhere like a deep-sea Manhattan Project to work on tasks similar to what NASA might conceptualize every now and then (far-flung visions of technological possibilities at the extreme edges of known science). I honestly could not find a common thread to tie together the many research projects going on at PATHOS-II. The WAU, like most sentient A.I. entities in Sci-Fi lore, was created with the altruistic goals of bettering human efficiency and knowledge in an inhospitable environment but apparently, the WAU being a few transistors short of passing a Turing test, came to view humans as an impediment to the greater good of PATHOS-II (what a shock). WAU decided that it would be quite alright to simply upload human minds taken from the “brain scan” technology mentioned in the beginning of my review, into various autonomous robotic helper drones, turning them into self-aware, cybernetic hybrids.
Not understanding the psychological ramifications of having two copies of the same consciousness existing in two different beings and lacking a proper definition of what a human was or a consistent idea of what human existence should be, the WAU quickly ran amok and decided to corrupt every organic, living entity (human, plant and animal) with its nano-robotic “structure gel” medium, basically hybridising the entirety of PATHOS-II into one giant, sentient, decentralized, cybernetic entity with a collective consciousness.
Naturally by the time any of the “brilliant minds” down at PATHOS-II understood what terrible fate imminently awaited them, it was too late, and the one-two punch that the collapse of WAU and the subsequent meteorite impact inflicted effectively destroyed all hope of salvaging the original purpose of PATHOS-II (whatever that was). Despite this all being so obscure and poorly attested to, this is the sad tragedy of PATHOS-II that SOMA tries to make you so desperately care about. Like I find with pop horror films where clueless, American co-eds get systemically butchered by serial killers or supernatural entities; it really is hard to sympathize with people who effectively sign their own death warrants.
While the introspection on what and how “self” is and “mind” occupies is fairly original, along with a lot of the in-game lore being quite technically sound, such as the WAU’s method of propagation via the black “structure gel”, which functions as a pathogen-like vector for a nano-technological virus; the overarching Sci-Fi concepts are wholly derivative. In fact, it’s basically asking the same questions the Matrix first offered up to millennial pop culture: is it all real or is it a very-convincing stand-in for a reality? Are we actually here or are we just 1s and 0s on a computer somewhere that are being switched on and off? Is it better for us to bury our heads in the sand and remained “plugged in” or is taking that Red Pill and discovering true consciousness a burden too difficult to bear for most? All of the tried-and-true staples of transhumanistic futurism are here: technological singularity, quantum computing rivalling human brains, distrustful A.I., digital immortality, ruthless corporate pursuits for “perfection” and unethical Capitalism driving a wedge of brash, New Age revolution into the traditionalist human psyche and its mores. It’s basically a mishmash of everything one of those “pop-scientists” who gets a lot of air-time like Raymond Kurzweil, Brian Cox, Michio Kaku or Neil deGrasse Tyson endlessly lecture about (and probably secretly wish would happen).
This is not a “deep game” contrary to the assertions of the story-writers who continually try to browbeat you into submission with Simon’s lamentations on how he doesn’t understand it all. I’m not really moved by a game that continually feels the need announce its ambitiousness to me. It's deep only in the sense that part of it takes place at the bottom of the ocean. If you want to spark a serious debate on transhumanism, read a book instead.
Second to the cardinal sins I identified in the story presentation and development, SOMA has dumbed-down and simplified many gameplay mechanics and enemy dynamics common to ATDD or other recent horror titles in order to railroad the player into listening to forced lecturing about the perils of forgetting what it means to be human and sympathising with mad scientists who were their own worst enemy. Quite a shame because I do feel that more engaging enemy encounters and inventory management along with some better level design could have perhaps redeemed the questionable story, but alas, this only serves to worsen the overall experience.
Enemy awareness and behaviour seemed highly inconsistent at best and downright broken at worst. Many a time I felt like I should have been spotted and died, and yet somehow I just crouched past enemies and they didn’t see me. Other times the enemies’ seem overly alert and caught me totally off-guard, for which I felt both pleasantly surprised and resentful because I exploited them far more times than I died in the game. The usual kinds of mechanics we see in Survival Horror dealing with different levels of enemy awareness, audio cues to enemy states, positional audio giveaways, enemy behaviour indicators, specific lines of sight, differentiated visibility for different types of cover or hiding spots and player tools to monitor enemy presence, are all kind of lost on SOMA, who chooses to use some but not all of these traits arbitrarily.
Things just kind of change on-the-fly and for no real discernable reason.
You may hide behind a short desk that doesn’t even block your field of vision and have an enemy walk by you completely oblivious in one encounter, only to try that same stunt in another and get killed. One sound makes no difference to enemy alertness but another summons an enemy onto your position almost immediately; strange, they both sounded as loud as each other. The other issue is that unless you’ve been spotted at point blank range and triggered an enemies’ highest alert state the enemies will not negotiate past certain environmental objects and narrow passages. There are physically a lot of places in PATHOS-II that enemies cannot go but the player can (as long as you haven’t been spotted) and once you learn this, you can always identify a couple of “safe havens” in a particular area that you can hunker down in and simply wait out the enemies alertness cool down.
Even after completing the game I’m still at a loss as to how to describe the enemies in SOMA other than to say that most enemy encounters are highly scripted affairs with the enemies shuffling around in short, circular loops and exhibiting predictable path finding routines when becoming alerted to your presence. It becomes a matter of timing them to simply move when the enemy is at the farthest point from you in his designated loop, and to stay in their blind spots. The enemies can certainly be challenging but always have a persistent impression of being exploitable and gameable; rather than omnipotent, predatory entities like the Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation.
I liken a lot of Survival Horror games to a well-played Chess match, where everything hinges on you being in the right place at the right time, and where your opening moves at the start of a level determine whether you’re going to be replaying it over and over again to get it right or whether you’ll have a flawless first-play through with no trial-and-error. This is especially true of the recent slew of games characterized by enemy invulnerability or an absence of combat, forgoing the usual action-lull-action-lull tempo in zombie/3rd-person Survival Horror titles (e.g. Dead Space 2, Resident Evil 5 or Alan Wake) and instead keeping tension around the top of the bell curve for the entirety of the game.
SOMA did not have this delicate, calculated and carefully laid out feel to it. More often than not I felt like I was just randomly stumbling around and somehow, without much planning or care, making it out alive far more often than I really should have.
SOMA treats the actual Survival Horror portions of the game with a tentative hesitancy; they never last as long as you’d imagine and just when you think you couldn’t take anymore hiding behind corners and looking for escape routes, the game almost senses the unease building in the player’s mind and delivers them to the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s like the developers did not want to fully subject the player to potential horrors of the WAU monsters, hence the tension, particularly after the 3rd or 4th horror section, becomes predictably lax as you know it’s never going to last.
The ultra-minimalist HUD seems to be all the rage these days amongst “immersion-philes” and proponents of keeping everything in first-person to never break the illusion but I counter that by saying the absolute lack of a HUD or inventory management in SOMA makes for an incredibly lifeless and boring window into the world you’re role-playing in. When the gameplay hits a lull where enemy encounters are absent, you can’t escape the fact that the atmosphere is not there.
A lifeless, bland, generic world with barely a sound or a dynamic event to register its presence to the player.
You have no inventory pickups to collect, no HUD elements to monitor, and really only one tool that you will use on interactable objects like computer terminals or doors. The flashlight doesn’t even run out of battery (though that’s probably offset by the fact that it has the luminescence of a candle in a jar) and the pixelated tearing/visual distortion effects that act as a crude radar for enemy proximity become pointless once you discover there’s really no penalty for getting too close to the enemies as long as you stay in their very generous blindspots.
The puzzles are mostly crude fetch quests and jigsaw assortment-type problems, where you arrange particular items in the right way or press the right combination of buttons to progress. It’s a shame really because the game offers glimpses of more elaborate and quite interesting puzzle concepts, particularly right at the very end with a neat crane mini-game that has the player remotely piloting a giant loading crane, but alas, most of these mini-games are forgettable, computer terminal hacking exercises. Hell, the stage could have been set for some truly out-of-left-field puzzles if the creativity was there, given that it’s revealed Simon is effectively able to “possess” robotic equipment or interfaces via brain-scan transferral and in fact, Simon and Catherine engage in one such scripted exercise just before descending into the abyssal zone.
What you’re left with after subtracting the lack of all the other gameplay elements is exploration, story exposition and atmosphere, and if the game is going to lay the burden of delivering a gripping experience on those elements, they need to really be 100% engaging and thoroughly detailed. Unfortunately though SOMA can’t claim to have come close to perfecting any of them.
Without making any kind of strategic or longer-term choices about keeping your chances of survival high by ensuring you have enough inventory items to survive or the right combination of items/health/consumables to overcome whatever challenges present themselves, the game is deathly void of any consequences to player ineptitude and bad decision-making, as typically the only thing you can fault for dying is being in the wrong place at the wrong time which hardly feels onerous on the player when they don’t know the lay of the levels and ironically, this gives the player a rather strong sense of confidence in a Survival Horror game. Just move through the levels blindly and don’t make eye contact with the enemies. In ATDD, failing to manage your resources properly resulted in you yourself significantly increasing your risk of failure. To increase your chances of survival, you could explore Brennenburg Castle at length for more items, but you risked running into more creatures. You could light up a lamp to see threats coming but you risked attracting attention or using up valuable lamp oil. You could hide in the shadows to evade monsters but lingering in the dark for too long weakened the player character’s sanity. It was a continual game of risk versus reward, hence the fear of failure amplified the fear of the game’s creatures and failure was always a result of the player’s long-term decisions.
This being Frictional’s first foray into Sci-Fi level design was glaringly obvious; their typical level design palette consists of Gothic-looking, medieval-inspired worlds or contemporary, industrial decay, both soaked in more shades of brown than is scientifically possible. The theme of abandonment and dilapidation is the main level design trope shared in common with PATHOS-II, although I have to say, perhaps due to an unfamiliarity with a more modern aesthetic, a lot of the machinery, rusted metal architecture and scrap-heap geometry wouldn’t look that out of place in other Frictional games either. Being a game of firsts for Frictional, this computerized, mechanized and dystopian futuristic world had a lot of illogical design decisions. I think Frictional overestimated the novelty of this world they created, to me it felt like a bizarre medley of WW2-era naval wrecks, BioShock’s Rapture, submarines, giant factories and early 1970’s visions of the future overlayed with a 21st century coat of paint. It didn’t give off a well-researched and believable vibe, as if the level designers studied deep-sea exploration vessels and modern-day underwater archaeology and marine biology in depth; more coming across as a fusion of designs that Frictional took off the shelf from previous games and ideas.
Finally, I might give passing mention to the fact that Frictional, being a fairly small, non-Triple A developer can’t exactly shell out all the money in the world required for the immense royalties to license today’s next-gen, gaming engines like Unreal 4, Frostbite 3, CryEngine 3 and so on. They’ve stuck to their in-house HPL Engine, born from the Penumbra series, which is in its third iteration with SOMA being the first game to use the upgraded HPL 3. While I won’t go so far as to say that it looks circa 2007, this engine is certainly not winning any awards for technical brilliance. Yes it’s received its fair share of ultra-modern rendering tweaks (all the usual buzzwords like Depth of Field, HDR, SSAO and dynamic terrain LOD are present and accounted for) but aside from the underwater sections which are quite passable in 2015 amongst the blistering eye-candy on offer from today’s engines, a lot of HPL 3 is looking quite tired and worn-out. Up close many environmental textures are rather ugly, surface geometry is noticeably jagged even with anti-aliasing applied (an inherent FXAA shortcoming), the particle effects and volumetric lighting seems lacking and everything (particularly underwater) is drenched in copious amounts of blur, bloom, and ridiculously oversaturated shader effects which get excessive to the point of making the game nauseating to look at. I don’t attribute technical shortcomings for significantly influencing my rating of this game in the slightest, so please don’t mistake this brief complaint for having significant weight on my scoring, but it will be a noticeable step down from most every other game of 2015 and plenty of gamers will have issues adjusting to that.
The Bottom Line
To wrap it all up then, much like Simon Jarrett’s dilemma of whether he remains human or not, SOMA is a game with a fundamental ambiguity about what exactly it’s trying to achieve. From the developer that already brought us what many call the definitive, one-of-its-kind, Survival Horror game, a feat which was going to be difficult to best by any measure, here we have a title which on paper, takes the next logical step and yet in tandem, makes an all-too-common mistake. A vastly disparate setting, with a more story-heavy, character-centric emphasis that severely hamstrings Frictional’s bread-and-butter: otherworldly horrors which you have no defense against and must run for your life from. Unfortunately this a classic mistake of a developer shooting themselves in the foot by forgetting what they do best and instead trying to throw in more of mainstream gaming’s “must-have” fads. This is what modern video game developers think the gamer demographic really wants: desperately achieving true “art form” status that mimics cinema with dense, emotional rambling on faux-intellectual subjects (even FPS games are becoming inundated with this stuff) where the actual gameplay takes a backseat to the talking. No one cared that ATDD's story was as absurd and disjointed as the identical-looking rooms of Brennenburg Castle. No one cared that Penumbra: Overture didn’t have NPC followers. No one wondered about what life was like in the abandoned mines of northern Greenland before Philip ventured inside. What they remember was the fact that they were afraid to play those games in the dark. ATDD was like a rite of passage for Survival Horror junkies: frightening, overwhelming, unflinchingly immersive and an atmosphere of sheer tension.
SOMA has basically thrown the baby out with the bath water in an attempt to do something Frictional was criticized for in their first game (Penumbra: Overture), trying to force concern and intrigue about characters, settings and stories that no one wanted forced upon them. While I saw flashes of the chilling creepiness that ATDD instilled in me, it was a case of too little, too late and my resentment of the story only served to completely desensitize me to the occasionally scary atmosphere.
I really didn’t want to just stand there contemplating the significance of the transformation human beings might undergo one day because stopping and having time to think is literally the antithesis of what it means to be a Survival Horror game. Horror is supposed to revolve around instinctive, reactive, unpredictable gameplay that happens in split-second impulses. Seeing a shadow move, hearing a loud noise or just getting a “bad feeling” is your cue to duck behind something or make a run for it. That’s the essence of Survival Horror to me and yet Frictional has, for reasons I can barely fathom, ripped the heart and soul out of SOMA when they should know better.
Windows · by Sharafciger (34) · 2016
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Game added by MichaelPalin.
Game added November 1, 2015. Last modified February 12, 2024.