Published on October 13th, 2015 | by David
Video Review – SOMA
Frictional Games has become well-known for making some of the scariest games of all time. So when SOMA finally released after three years in the making, expectations were high for it to be a terrifying game. However, after playing through SOMA I can say that the game simply wasn’t that scary. There are a handful of memorable and terrifying moments but over the course of the game’s ten hour campaign, these moments are few and far between. I played through SOMA multiple times in the dark with headphones on, and I never really jumped out of my seat.
So I think many people are going to be disappointed by SOMA in that it probably won’t go on the top of their horror game lists. I also anticipate that people will come to SOMA looking for only a scary game and will have no idea about the amazing story they’re about to be told. At many times SOMA puts telling its deep and detailed story first, and scaring the player second. There were plenty of moments throughout my playthrough where I stopped and said: This would have been a perfect place for a scare. But SOMA doesn’t take every opportunity to scare you, because it wants you to focus on its story. While that story will stay in your thoughts long after you finish it, SOMA lacks replay value and its gameplay does nothing to stand out from the crowd of glorified hide-and-seek horror games.
So is it worth the $30? Because the story of SOMA is easily the best thing about the game, I’m going to try my best not to spoil it for you. You play as Simon. A lot of things happen to Simon. Some are bad, some are weird, and some are just plain tragic. A team of people in the underwater research facility PATHOS-II are attacked by hostile robots that have started behaving like people. Simon wants to try and live, so the player must guide him to live. About three hours in the main goal of the game becomes clear, and I loved seeing what kind of turns the story would take so explaining that story any further than this point would kind of lessen that joy for you.
One thing I will say about the story that reinforces my earlier statement about being a horror game second, is that Simon is not a silent protagonist. Simon will makes comments to himself, or audibly shriek in terror when things go wrong and he’ll even make lighthearted remarks such as when a service robot helps him open a door. All of these things work against a strict horror feel in the game since you’re playing another person and not yourself, but you have to realize the goal of SOMA is to tell the story of Simon and his experiences, and not that of the player’s. However, as the story progresses, Simon ultimately grows out of his lightheartedness as more bad, weird, and tragic things start to happen to him. It’s enjoyable to see Simon’s character develop throughout his journey.
Artistically, SOMA has an incredible amount of detail in its world; there are hundreds of emails and files to read, there are items littered throughout rooms in logical places, and it all helps to bring PATHOS-II to life in a way few other games can. Although I will say that the one ounce of nudity in the game feels entirely unnecessary. Imagine the detail of Gone Home, spread across a lengthy campaign, but without the low poly hairbrushes.
Unfortunately, like Gone Home, SOMA has its fair share of graphical problems. While the game only ever got as low as 40 FPS on a GTX 660, there were countless long stutters throughout the game as new parts of the level loaded in. I played through SOMA once on my PC and again on my PS4, and these long and annoying pauses happened often on both. Frictional has stated that they’re working on patching these issues, which is nice, but here’s hoping that they also work on making SOMA compatible with NVIDIA Shadowplay. Unfortunately, SOMA hates Shadowplay, so rather than record with desktop capture and have horribly pixelated dark areas, the footage you’ll be seeing in the video review above will be coming from the PS4. But I can assure you that SOMA looks every bit as good as and even better on PC than what the video will show you.
About halfway through the game when I reached Omicron, I encountered a popular bug that many other people have had where my game was stuck in a permanent motion blur for the rest of my playthrough. The color separation effect, which turns on whenever your health is low, was very annoying. If you’re walking around for a good while without finding a way to regain your health, you’ll pay the price with the strain on your eyes. Thankfully, it can be turned off.
The sound design in SOMA is especially impressive; items in the physics engine will make different sounds depending on their impact, and enemies sound menacing as they approach you. Unfortunately, I can’t tell if the enemies have impaired senses, or if they are just complete idiots. The AI in SOMA needs a ton of work. On many occasions enemies have had me backed into a corner staring me down and had me dead to rights and they just walked away, doing a complete 180 and leaving the room… and then they’ll come back, and do the same thing again. The sound of clicking on your flashlight tends to alert some enemies, but once you stop clicking your flashlight they seem to forget that you exist. Some enemies do not want to leave their posts, and because you’re navigating through small corridors and rooms, you’ll feel like some enemies are just camping you.
Design-wise, the enemies are also a bit disappointing. The first monster, which is cool, only gets two encounters, and the second more gimmicky enemy is completely forgotten after the third level. From there on out, almost every enemy you encounter looks and acts pretty much the same.
The one place where I feel SOMA really misses the mark is its gameplay. There’s nothing really bad about it, it’s just too simple to set itself apart. Aside from things like keys, there are no items to find; no tinderboxes, no lamp oil, no health potions, not even batteries for your flashlight. Without anything of that sort, the majority of rooms are going to feel empty aside from notes and emails to read. All of the game’s countless empty lockers and shelves could have been filled with some kind of item. As a result, a lot of people have started to brand SOMA as a walking simulator, which sounds absurd, but when you think about it, it’s not too far off.
Take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. There is no reason at all why Simon can’t use a weapon. There’s one point in the game when Simon has to use a Stun Rod, but once he’s done he just throws it to the ground. When I consider the entirety of SOMA’s levels and story, there are plenty of other gameplay styles that the game could take and still fit the horror bill. It could be something as combat-heavy as Dead Space, or something as bare-bones as Silent Hill. It’s not that I want guns in SOMA, it’s that I want at least some kind of gameplay. Horror games can have combat and still deliver effective scares.
SOMA’s final problem, the most debatable of the problems I’ve listed, is its $30 asking price. Walking away from SOMA I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the story and would recommend the game to other people, but at $30, how much content in the game are we getting for the price? Well the answer is not that much. Throughout its campaign you’re presented with choices that seem meaningful, but they have little to no consequence, and there is only one ending. I would actually say that multiple playthroughs might lower your opinion of the game once you see just how pointless your choices actually were. SOMA does have Steam Workshop support, so there is the possibility of new custom stories being added by the community. Other than that, once you beat the game you’re done. Ultimately I would say that while I think the journey and the story of SOMA are just barely worth $30 to me, I don’t think anyone is going to hold it against you if you decide to wait for a sale.
SOMA might not be the most terrifying game that people wanted, but it’s more of an assault on your mind. It’s got plenty of memorable moments and a perfectly realized and thought-provoking story. It definitely has its fair share of problems, but those problems will seem like minor bumps in the road when you look back at SOMA as one of the best sci-fi video game stories of all time, in a very well-polished experience, that was well worth the wait.
How much you want to spend for that experience is up to you.
Summary: If you're looking for a game to give you nightmares, SOMA will disappoint you. There are certainly more terrifying options, and other horror games with more fleshed-out gameplay. But if you're looking for an experience to completely immerse you in its world and story, SOMA might be your game of the year.