There’s an age-old saying that is used to convince people in fear that nothing is there, that you’re safe and that you’ll be alright: “It’s all in your head.” This notion was ever-present during my playthrough of Soma thanks to the excellent story and consuming sound design, for which Swedish developers Frictional Games (Amnesia: The Dark Descent) must be applauded. They’ve created an atmospheric and psychological journey that pulls you in by getting you to believe in the unbelievable occurrences unfolding before your eyes.
Soma is a first-person, sci-fi survival horror game that sees you play as Simon Jarrett. Jarrett finds himself on Upsilon, a post of the underwater research facility Pathos-II, with no recollection of how he got there. It is here your journey begins to answers the following questions: how did you get here? Why are you here? And how do you get out?
Right away you can tell that not all is right at Pathos-II, with a desolate Upsilon showing signs of a struggle that consumed it some time ago. As you progress through the dilapidated hallways you will encounter machines that you have the ability to interact with. But you get an eerie sense that that isn’t all that is down here, a feeling that is prevalent across the seven to eight hour campaign. Your trepidation is eased somewhat when you come into contact with a female voice over the facility’s intercom, Catherine, who urges you to meet her at another Pathos- II outpost. You make haste and on your route and soon you are given the opportunity to traverse the ocean floor. It is here you get to admire the beauty of isolation and to feel a sense of peace as fish and other marine animals live out their lives. The calm before the storm.
The gameplay in Soma is relatively simple, much like its control scheme. It is a non-combat survival horror; there are no guns, no knives and no fisticuffs. It is like a game of hide-and-seek that is fatal if you’re caught. Things to remember: remain undetected, remain alive. The stealth scenes create tension rarely matched in horror games these days. There were several times where I would scream, willing my legs to move faster as whatever it was chasing me closed in, and as it did the screen would flicker in a static malfunctioning sort of way that made it clear just how fucked I was if I was caught.
To progress through the facility outposts you must solve an array of puzzles, collect items and complete tasks that are required to open doors etc. The puzzles are all relatively simple to solve and you’ll rarely find yourself not knowing what to do. As you explore the outposts looking for mandatory items or completing objectives you will uncover more of the game’s story and discover just how much despair surrounded those at Pathos-II before it was overcome. It was once, quite obviously, an institute built upon great potential only to be decimated by catastrophic misunderstandings. The only downside to this is that towards the end of the game the objectives become a little tedious.
While the game gets a tick for its atmosphere overall, the graphics themselves aren’t anything groundbreaking, in fact up close some of the texturing is rather poor. But it serves to remember that Frictional Games is made up of a small team, and that some corners will be cut. For the most part the game runs smoothly, however a glaring issue for the PS4 version were the framerate stutters and the frequent in-game loading, which would freeze the game for a few seconds. These moments, while not completely killing the immersion, were extremely frustrating. The level designs were simple and effective; every building isn’t simply a labyrinth of locked and unlocked doors. When there was a buffet of doors to choose from, not every room has an escape route. If you made the choice to hide from your assailant in an office with only one door, chances are you’ll end up dead.
The creatures themselves are well designed, even if you do only get a brief look at them, which is probably the most terrifying aspect. You never fully know what is chasing you. The atmosphere and tension is reminiscent of EA’s Dead Space series (excluding Dead Space 3). Its horror themes don’t target your underwear by making you jump out of your skin every chance it gets. Rather, it targets your mental state, trying to get you to crack and believe that no matter how safe you think you are, you’re always being watched and you’re never alone. In a way it hypnotises you, separating your body and mind, sending your subconscious to the body of Simon Jarret, enabling you to identify just how frightening it would be to be trapped on the bottom of the ocean, in a facility full of creatures that want you dead.
This is all achieved thanks to the games amazing sound production. It must be added that I played the majority of the game with headphones, Astro A50s to be precise (brand dropping). This enhanced the immersion and tension tenfold and I highly suggest if you play Soma, you do so with headphones. The sound design, as mentioned at the start of the review is the jewel in Soma’s crown. Whether you need to be reminded that you’re not alone in Pathos-II, or to reflect on what information you have discovered, the sound is aptly used to squeeze every bit of tension, fear, hope, joy and sadness out of the experience. This in combination with the superb voice acting gives the narrative a powerful quality and will leave an indelible imprint on the player.
What makes Soma such an impressive title is its ability to successfully combine survival horror and a quality story that gets you thinking; from start to finish you’re engaged. You want to know more and you question whether it is possible, in any lifetime. Its story is definitely a contender for the best premise of this console generation.The slow pacing of the game may not be everyone’s flavour, but it works. There is a great separation between times when you’re frantically fleeing from creatures and quieter moments that allow you to collect your thoughts and ponder your predicament. You are presented with facultative choices, that although they don’t affect the story or outcome, they make you feel conflicted about what is the right decision. Simon and Catherine develop a real relationship, with both each other and the player. Honestly, I don’t believe I’ve been as connected to or invested in characters since Joel and Ellie (I was born to make the big calls). The more they opened up, the closer you (and they) become. The narrative is delivered with such emotion that it is hard not to buy into Frictional Games’ vision.
Survival horror games are not for everyone, let alone those where you cannot defend yourself. If you can allocate eight hours to play Soma, I assure you you’ll get more out of it than just trophies. It has an emotional buy-in rarely found in the survival horror genre. Soma is a rewarding experience that leaves you with a feeling of satisfactory unsatisfaction. Its top-notch sound production and story are worth the playthrough alone, and cancel out the frustrating performance issues. Just please, play it with headphones.
Reviewed on PS4.