Release Date: September 22, 2015Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4Developer: Frictional GamesPublisher: Frictional GamesGenre: Survival Horror
SOMA is the latest offering from Frictional Games, the team who helped reinvigorate the survival horror genre in 2010 with Amnesia: The Dark Descent and oversaw its 2013 sequel, A Machine for Pigs. With SOMA, Frictional’s stylized horror elements are woven into a strange and curious story, set against the backdrop of an underwater research facility hell.
The plot in SOMA feels like something straight out of a pulp science fiction book about underwater robots. This is reinforced by the Philip K. Dick quote that opens up the entire experience: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” SOMA asks a lot of questions about the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence and how you define yourself as a person, and these thematic elements are always at the forefront of the story as you continue pushing forward, heavy-footed across the ocean floor.
While The Dark Descent derived much of its tension from Daniel’s extreme isolation and paranoia, SOMA captures this same sense of loneliness, but in a more worldly and far-reaching way. After all, what’s a more isolated and despairing location than the bottom of the ocean? These sentiments are explored and executed in two surprisingly different ways than Amnesia. The first surprise is that the PATHOS-2 facility contains a few friendly voices for you to talk to and interact with. The second is that some of these exchanges are actually humorous, yet the humor has a twinge of sadness to it. Even though this conditional companionship makes SOMA a less frightening experience than The Dark Descent and even A Machine for Pigs, the dialogue adds a bit of welcomed and thoughtful campiness to the journey that circles back to the pulp sci-fi feel.
In The Dark Descent, players were meant to avoid even looking at the monsters that stalked them or else their sanity would plummet and nightmarish blurring effects would take over the screen. The same holds true here in SOMA, with the enemy robots’ circuitry causing the visuals to go haywire if you wander too close. But whereas The Dark Descent experimented with different gameplay mechanics that accentuated this central feature, like having to refuel your oil lamp and hiding in the shadows behind closed doors to evade a pursuer, SOMA feels a lot less strategic during similar moments. Most of the time, I managed to blindly flee from the monster and arrive at the next objective without too much of a hassle. The physics are once again simple, yet impressive, but there aren’t a lot of scenarios in which the act of opening doors or throwing objects is really allowed to shine.
Aside from your encounters with the stalking circuitry, the main gameplay mechanic in SOMA is centered on exploration and using a device called the Omnitool, which allows you to open certain doors and access various computer terminals. Environmental puzzles revolve around the scientific setting of PATHOS-2 and the surrounding areas, from rebooting a computer server to powering up a tram system to navigating the treacherous underwater pathways that lead you from one station to the next.
Despite its underwater setting, the abandoned research facilities and computer terminals in SOMA actually give off more of a Dead Space vibe rather than BioShock, as I was initially expecting. The rusted equipment and waterlogged corridors are filled with various logbooks and audio files that expand and enrich the eight-hour experience with intriguing background lore.
Although SOMA is much lighter on the scares and survival gameplay than its predecessors in the Amnesia series, it’s the bizarre and often unnerving tale that really draws you into Frictional Games’ sad and lonely underwater world. Like ripples expanding across the surface of a pond, the careful plot points make you think in branching patterns and some of the larger thematic implications of the story have just as much depth as the murky waters themselves.
Joe Jasko is a game critic.