Allow me to be totally upfront. I love myself a good survival horror game and like to believe that I’ve played the best of the best. When I found out that SOMA was coming to Xbox One, I have to admit that I had never heard of it before its Xbox inbound reveal. SOMA originally launched back in 2015 for the PC and PlayStation 4, pulling in some pretty favourable reviews in the process. The question is however, how does SOMA stand up in a year where several other high profile survival horror games have already released, ranging from Outlast 2 to Resident Evil VII? I found it to sit somewhere in the medium, and despite it’s unique setup and genuinely scary atmosphere, SOMA is a few ingredients short of that proverbial master recipe.
You take on the role of Simon Jarret, a base average sort of guy that’s suffering with a serious brain injury. Once the short introductory cutscene is out of the way, you pick up control of Simon in his apartment shortly after a telephone call from Doctor Munshi. Doctor Munshi is interested in offering Simon an experiment treatment that may well aid Simon with his brain injury. You’re immediately tasked with locating a serum that will help the scan you’re soon going to be subject to, and once you’ve done that, you’re off on your way to the lab. It’s instantly apparent that this lab is far from anything I would consider “official”, and instead looks like something that’s been slapped together by a group of tech-minded college students. Desperate for a cure and seemingly phased, Simon sits down in the chair and the scan begins. Unfortunately something goes wrong with the tech and Simon confusingly wakes up in PATHOS-II, some sort of research facility based under the sea. It’s here that the shit hits the fan…
Your immediate surroundings from this moment on are often dark and dank, grouped with an atmosphere I haven’t truly witnessed since playing Alien Isolation. Clanking noises will periodically occur throughout the complex, the dripping of dark viscous fluids will seep from the ceiling, and loud thuds will sound off as you turn you dive deeper in. It’s not long before you meet your first encounter via comms, a helpful woman by the name of Catherine. Though it’s not long after this that you meet your first hostile encounter, and it only gets even more messed up from thereon out. Talking about SOMA without giving too much away past this point is going to be tough, and I’m not really one for dishing out any spoilers. What I will say however is that the plot and the theme of the game is certainly entertaining enough to keep you engaged, regardless to whether or not you find it as predictable as I did nearer the endgame.
There’s a heavy lean on the motivations and capabilities of artificial intelligence throughout the course of SOMA, and above all else, it’s this very theme that got to me the most. I was constantly distracted by the question of “what if?”, so much so that almost every jump scare and tone-shift caught me off guard. I like to think that that was the intended design, and if that’s the case, developer Frictional Games have hit a great mark. The actual gameplay usually consists of locating items and objects that will help you progress further into the game, with something typically lurking around every corner to keep you on edge. SOMA plays entirely in the first person perspective, and has you seeking out clues and additional story elements via rummaging through desks, drawers, cabinets, and just about anything else that may look as though it houses a useful tip / progress necessary item. The main aim of the game is to escape the facility, which regularly becomes an afterthought amidst everything that’s going on.
It’s worth pointing out that much like Alien Isolation and Resident Evil 7, Simon isn’t naturally capable of overcoming a foe. Instead Simon will need to run and hide from anything that seems hostile and dangerous. That means the safest way to traverse the complex is by sneaking about room to room and generally staying out of sight. Many items can be examined for that extra story and background meat, which is made apparent back in Simons apartment. Letters can be read, paperwork can be pulled up, emails can be looked up and much much more. It really helps to go out of your way to check out anything that be interacted with as it fleshes out the situation at hand. PATHOS-II is chock-full of oddly crafted machinery, dead human bodies, and bizarre robotic structures that almost look life-like. There are trails of ooze looking organisms throughout the facility, many of which can disorientate you if you get too close. Safe to say that the reality for protagonist Simon, is far from ideal. It’s this level of design and creativity that holds up the entire journey, with interesting oddities littered throughout.
Your comm friend Catherine helps to bolster the story telling, and the dialogue between her and Simon is fresh and well written. Exploration will allow you to find out more information about Catherine through the previously mentioned items, which again pushes the player to seek out as much as they can. The puzzle aspects of SOMA are hardly what I would describe as difficult, with the only real hardship being that you are never really given much insight as to what you should do with items needed to progress. Dealing with the foes that patrol the facility is actually fairly easy work and that’s somewhat of a nuisance. Alien Isolation implemented a fantastic cat-and-mouse horror vibe that had you constantly hiding and running for your life, but SOMA just doesn’t nail that quite as well. In fact one of the first creatures I came up against I was able to outsmart using cheap tactics. For instance, I was situated on floor 3 when I came face to face with the first enemy.
I was able to lure the enemy down, floor by floor, to floor 1 by simply giving myself enough room and jumping up and down on the spot. This encourages the enemy to locate the source of the noise, but that’s all that it does. It will move to the exact space that you jumped, stand there for a few seconds and then retreat back to its previous position. It hardly did much to instil fear and if anything, just annoyed the hell out of me before long. Another problem with the game is that, at least on Xbox One, SOMA suffers from the occasional drop in frame-rate. Truth be told this only occurred a handful of times, but when it did occur it was far from a welcoming sight. Those of you that enjoy the journey more than the experience of horror will be glad to know that SOMA packs in a Safe Mode. This switches off enemy hostility and allows you to take the game at your own pace, free of harm. The story is good enough to justify trying this mode out, but if you can persevere with the annoying enemy AI, I would recommend the core mode above all else.
SOMA isn’t an excellent example of horror, but instead shines its brightest through its story telling. That’s not to say that it isn’t scary, on the contrary it’s very unnerving and full of unsettling sights and choices, it’s just not up to scratch when those aspects try to go hand in hand. The gameplay remains tight and well structured and the visuals and design collectively serve up one intriguing experience, something that’s upheld further by excellent voice acting. Frame-rate issues do persist throughout sections of the game and although this issue isn’t too intrusive, it does become annoying when it happens. The same can be said about the daft enemy AI. With these problems to the side, there’s a surprisingly deep, meaningful and tense game for those that are up for the trek. Though I must reiterate, the story and setting make up the meat of the matter.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.