SOMA Review - The Depths of Horror

SOMA

Horror and comedy are both incredibly subjective, and therefore, difficult to master. What is scary or funny to one person can easily be boring and uninteresting to another. Today we're here to talk about horror specifically, one of the most difficult genres to master in my humble opinion.

Frictional Games struck gold with their horror games Amnesia: The Dark Descent on the PC, and now they're back again with SOMA for the PS4. Having just finished the game, I'm stilling reeling from some of the questions it asked of me. Science fiction meets horror in a big way here, but is it terrifying for horror fans? It's time to find out.

A Story That Haunts Your Existence

One of the biggest themes in SOMA is the concept of humanity. What makes us human? Is it the flesh and bone we have? Perhaps it's the unique personalities and features we all have, our soul as it were? Or maybe, just maybe, it's none of those things. It's hard to talk about SOMA's story because I don't want to spoil anything. The incredibly profound and haunting twists and turns that the game offers in its narrative are its best qualities by a long shot.

I'm not talking about jump scares or tension-fueled moments (though there are some) I'm talking about the times where the game slows down and asks you to make an incredibly difficult decision. These don't affect the story in any major way, a feature that would have been very welcome, but they still post questions that make you think.

Other moments happen during lulls where you're traveling through the depths of the ocean, looking out onto expansive landscapes that few have ever seen, let alone explored. During these times the main character, Simon, will have discussions with his companion about how the events of the game are affecting him. These moments give him humanity, but also force you to ask yourself the same questions.

Sure, you're not actually in the game or facing any of these horrific scenarios, but that doesn't change the fact that SOMA's themes break the fourth wall and force you to ask yourself questions you'd normally never touch. It's haunting in a mental kind of way, the kind of horror that doesn't send adrenaline coursing through your veins, but instead the kind that keeps you up at night.

Beyond that, the only thing I'll say is that SOMA takes place in various claustrophobic stations beneath the ocean and includes moments where you're out on the ocean floor moving between stations or completing objectives. To say anything more could risk spoiling something.

Story is by far SOMA's strongest suit, if you love existential science fiction, I would recommend the game based solely on the tale it weaves. This is a game though, not a movie, so there's plenty more going on beyond just the amazing story it tells. It's here where SOMA and I had a few scuffles and differences in opinion.

Gameplay That You Love to Hate

SOMA takes the classic Frictional Games approach to gameplay by giving you nothing but a crouch, run, lean, and action button to work with. When it comes to the grotesque enemies you'll be facing, your only option is to stay out of sight or run like it's going out of style. No guns, hammers, knives, or anything else remotely available to defend yourself with.

It's a surefire way to create tension, and it works here like always, though I feel like this trend of "it's scary because you can't fight them" is getting a little old. I'm not saying I should be sporting enough firepower to make Rambo blush, but an entire 10-12 hour game of cat and mouse gets old after a while, especially when the tactic is always the same: sneak in, grab something, sneak out, pray you don't get spotted.

One thing that SOMA does to relieve the tension of being spotted is allowing you a second chance of sorts. When an enemy comes out and gets you, you won't die right away if you're at full health. Instead, you'll wake up in the same spot with some red on the screen and a limp to your step. The enemy will also have left the immediate area, giving you a chance to get out of there.

It's nice because it cuts out the number of "You Died" screens by a large amount. The idea here was that having to repeat a single area multiple times would lessen the horror, but it's still frustrating when you manage to get out, only to be limping and staring at a red blurry screen until you find some health which could be a minute or two, or a longer time period.

Health itself comes from odd organic holes found in the environment. When you approach them, you'll see a health symbol, at which point something, uh, interesting happens and you have full health.

It's one of those "okay, well that's a thing" kind of moments so I won't spoil it here. The point though is that SOMA's second chance system is good for removing some frustration resulting from repeated failures, but it doesn't fix the issue entirely. There's a balance between horror, challenge, and frustration that it almost hits here, but slightly misses the mark.

Part of this is due to the lack of direction in the game. For the most part, areas are linear, but many larger spaces will have multiple halls, rooms, or in the case of the ocean areas, tons of open space to explore. You have no map button or any kind of direction in these cases, and sometimes it's not readily apparent what you're supposed to do.

This results in you using organic means like maps on the wall or names on offices, which is cool because it's immersive. The trade-off though, is that you find yourself wandering around hostile areas dodging an enemy while you curse at the game because you've gone in circles for twenty minutes and you have no real idea where you're supposed to go.

Again, not bad, more of a balance issue here. I like the organic exploration, and I don't want my hand held, but I also would like to know what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. SOMA provides general direction in this regard, but there were plenty of times where I flipped a switch or slid something into place without a real understanding of why I had to do it.

One could argue that once you find this proverbial switch, that you have your answer, but I would counter by asking why I knew to flip it in the first place beyond dumb luck? In this sense, SOMA once again does some cool things, but leaves out of some of the fundamentals that provide direction and understanding to the player.

In the end, the story is what drove me forward in SOMA. The gameplay was definitely scary at times, and we'll discuss the atmosphere and design momentarily, but ultimately I was more frustrated with being lost than actually being scared. When it works, it works like a charm and it's most certainly a terrifying experience. It's just sad that those great moments are divided up by stretches of frustration or lack of direction.

In the past, Frictional Games has brought experiences that hover around the 6 hour mark, but SOMA is an easy 10 hours, longer if you explore and find additional story in the computers and documents you come across.

I think this new length was padded slightly by some of the aforementioned sections where I was mindlessly wandering the ocean, wondering where I was supposed to go or how to get there, or stuck in a large area with an enemy, desperately trying to find the right switch or terminal so I could leave.

The Depths of Horror

Frictional Games has a master-level grip on setting, audio, and creature design. The underwater complex known as Pathos-II is brought to life in SOMA with detailed textures both inside and out of the buildings. Rooms and offices look like they've been lived in, horrific scenes are played out in your mind as you see the remnants of what happened prior to your arrival.

It feels like a real place and it really feels like something unspeakable has happened and continues to happen there. The enemies you encounter change several times throughout the game, but their behaviors are relatively similar with a few exceptions such as one that can only see you if you're looking at it. Many of these designs are a marriage of organic material and machine, and it works in a very unsettling way.

The audio is positively immaculate. Tension is perfectly built through the music and the sound effects, which always make you feel like you're being watched, even when you know there are no enemies nearby. It takes hold of you and never lets go in the best way possible. Honestly, I wanted to mute the game when I was frustrated because the music did such a good job of building tension that even the same old halls or offices still felt dangerous.

Graphically, SOMA doesn't break any new ground, but its use of lighting, and the incredible art design in the environments and the enemies make it stand out, along with the perfectly tense soundtrack.

Final Thoughts

SOMA was a difficult game to review for me, because on the one hand, I absolutely loved it. On the other hand though, there were more than a few times where I wanted to shut it off because I was frustrated at the lack of direction and the constant game of cat and mouse.

That being said, SOMA told a story that I won't soon forget. It forced me to ask questions and make decisions that I would never willingly approach. Worse, it didn't provide answers to those questions either. When the story is over, you'll know what happened (wait until after the credits by the way), but you'll still be left with some existential questions that can and will keep you up at night.

Perhaps that was the fear that SOMA always intended to impart on us; the fear of the unknown, the fear of not knowing what defines a human. The quick jump scares and the frustration will fade, but ultimately SOMA's greatest triumph is presenting you with quandaries that are just as terrifying as its monsters.

The game opens with a quote from Phillip K. Dick which reads: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." You can close the game, delete it from your hard drive even, but SOMA's biggest questions impart the kind of fear that doesn't go away so easily.

Final Score: 8.0/10

Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert Date: 9/16/2014
Updated: 9/28/15

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