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Somerville Review

Ever have a close encounter?

There’s something strangely familiar about Somerville. No, it’s not the fact that its core design philosophy is similar to Inside and Little Nightmares, which has you traversing a largely linear field across multiple levels in dark, narrow corridors and rain-swept forests with a scattering of puzzles. It’s not the fact that its developer was formed by one of the minds behind Inside and its predecessor Limbo in former Playdead co-founder Dino Patti, either. No, I think what’s familiar to me, is the fact that I’ve seen this story play out before. A father, desperate to save his family from impending doom by a power beyond mankind, goes on a perilous journey with little hope in sight. It’s a tale as old as time, yet Somerville still manages to feel fresh and intriguing across its short runtime.

Living in a rural area, population barely anyone, a family awakes to a sudden and surprising situation no-one saw coming. That’s my description, because if you’re unaware of the game or have been avoiding the trailers as much as I have, it’s best to keep its twists a secret to ensure it gets the right kind of reaction during the game. Long story short, you’ll play the role of the father who must solve a few puzzles using some unique abilities in order to reach safety and reunite with his wife and child.

The opening hour of the game sets the tone, as one strange event leads to another and the family are separated. You’ll spend the next few hours climbing through desolate country landscapes bereft of life, and solving a few headscratchers by using the environment and the gifts given to you (by accident, it seems). The journey isn’t a long one, but most of your time will be taken up by trying to figure out what goes where, which can be both frustrating and gratifying. Somerville is at its best with these puzzles, making you think after every unfortunate death and really take in the area around you without necessarily making things obvious.

Sure, but does it get a decent 5G signal?

It’s a about halfway through that things begin to take a more complex turn, where some environmental hazards require timing and patience to pass. I did honestly find myself cursing at my misfortune before finally understanding what the game wanted me to do. Was I supposed run after the minecart or was I meant to wait until it had crashed through the barrier, alerting a nearby enemy in the process and clearing the path? It’s a little trial and error, but for most of my time I was able to clear everything without too much thought, and the pace at which you’re moving means there’s never a dull moment.

It’s the tone that really helps to sell the key moments, with dark, broken landscapes covered in debris and pouring rain hiding dangerous structures off in the distance. At one point I stopped and looked out over what I think might have been an ocean from on top of a hill, taking the scenery in. It’s a beautiful game to look at, despite the bleak nature of its story and the dangers that lurk in the night, backed by a solemn score and zero dialogue outside of a few grunts and cries of pain. It’s all about selling the story on emotions, and on that front Somerville is a class above.

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As things come to a point and the story reveals some of its little twists, the game becomes less a puzzle solver and more a linear escape, chased through city streets with danger all around. It never truly feels like your characters are in trouble, as long as you time things right, but again Somerville does a good job of selling its characters’ reactions to the crazy sequence of events. There’s a particularly heartbreaking moment that actually left me angry, emphasising how the odds are so greatly stacked against the family and how even such an obvious thing to do can be overlooked in the heat of the moment. It’s out of your hands, in the end, as the story needs to take you down that set path.

Taking it all in

Given the pedigree at the head of the development team, I did have some surprising issues I wasn’t expecting. Controlling each character felt a little loose and awkward, at times I had to mash the A button to achieve the correct interactive outcome, other times my character found itself stuck on scenery or didn’t react quickly enough to what I wanted them to do. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be an issue, but there are a few stealth sections and some deft timing required on a few puzzles that felt a little off or took a few goes for the right response. There’s no doubting its visual prowess and its storytelling efforts, but it does feel like Somerville needed maybe a little extra to clean up those control issues.

Equally, Somerville’s last hour or two isn’t as strong or as creatively puzzling as its opening stanza. There’s a need to wrap things up and find a conclusion befitting its tale, but it does feel a tiny bit rushed in the process and far more linear than the rest of the game. Maybe a splash more puzzle solving with the same artistic flair as its first half would have been of benefit, perhaps even an extra hour or two to truly explore its themes. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I would have loved more time with the family working together than what was on offer here.

Final Thoughts

Somerville nails the feeling of being lost and broken at the heart of a scenario no human being can possibly fathom. Though it struggles a little towards the end, it still pulls at the heartstrings and delivers on its core themes admirably, with visual and audio cues wonderfully put together to accentuate the cold, uncomfortable scenario. I’d argue that it doesn’t quite hit the dizzying, unusual highs of Inside in comparison, but it’s a fantastic experience well worth the time spent.

Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review code supplied by publisher

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Somerville Review
An intimate journey through weirdness
Somerville is a fantastic debut for Jumpship that should be commended, but a little extra polish in some key areas would have made an already great game even better.
The Good
Visually striking
Pulls at the heartstrings without the need for dialogue
Some puzzles are genuinely creative
Strong opening chapters set the tone
The Bad
Controls feel a little janky in places
Later chapters feel too linear and lack the same emphasis on puzzle solving
Could have been a tad longer to really explore its otherworldly themes
8.5
Get Around It
  • Jumpship
  • Jumpship
  • Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC
  • November 14, 2022

Somerville Review
An intimate journey through weirdness
Somerville is a fantastic debut for Jumpship that should be commended, but a little extra polish in some key areas would have made an already great game even better.
The Good
Visually striking
Pulls at the heartstrings without the need for dialogue
Some puzzles are genuinely creative
Strong opening chapters set the tone
The Bad
Controls feel a little janky in places
Later chapters feel too linear and lack the same emphasis on puzzle solving
Could have been a tad longer to really explore its otherworldly themes
8.5
Get Around It
Written By Mark Isaacson

Known on the internet as Kartanym, Mark has been in and out of the gaming scene since what feels like forever, growing up on Nintendo and evolving through the advent of PC first person shooters, PlayStation and virtual reality. He'll try anything at least once and considers himself the one true king of Tetris by politely ignoring the world records.

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