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Soma by Fictional Games is now our on PC and PlayStation 4. Its a survival horror experience that leaves a lasting impression. Our own Alan Stock is here with the official ComiConverse review.
Frictional Games, the makers of the hugely influential and terrifying game Amnesia: The Dark Descent had horror fans eagerly anticipating their next title. Amnesia made waves in the gaming world by being one of the scariest games of all time; an intense psychological survival horror game in which you explored a Lovecraftian underworld full of nightmarish enemies.
What made Amnesia so effective was the atmosphere of dread and the frightening fact that aside from running and hiding from enemies you had no defence – you couldn’t even look at them as it caused your character to go insane!
Soma: A Review
Soma, once again a first person survival horror game, may disappoint fans of Amnesia’s intense horror style. Although the scary moments and monsters are still here – there’s a lot less of them. Instead, as you uncover a creepy mystery, the engaging story, themes and setting leaves a more lingering and disturbing impression – a slightly more brainy outing, then. But horror fans, don’t despair –as somewhat of a horror game veteran myself – at times I was still dreading to play during the wee hours, and the game is downright perturbing.
You play as Simon, a normal Canadian chap from the present day. Early in the story he finds himself transported into the near future, to underwater base Pathos 2. In survival horror tradition, everything’s falling apart, the installation’s deserted aside from monsters and corpses, and some weird metallic stuff is growing on everything. You’re defenceless, trying to survive and figure out what’s happened. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, as it’s a key part of the game, but you aren’t totally alone; you soon meet Catherine, who acts as your remote guide and companion. The script and voice acting are pretty good for these characters, although Simon’s attitude sometimes grates and his occasionally flippant remarks sits at odds with the levity of his situation. After meeting Catherine, the mystery and themes of the game gradually unfold as you journey onwards through Pathos 2.
Exploration plays a large role in Soma, with a suspenseful and creepy atmosphere throughout keeping you on edge. Pathos 2 is a big place and you’ll see many parts of it through the journey. As a setting, it’s doesn’t win any awards for innovation, we’ve seen these sci-fi bases a million times before and Bioshock, among others, have already nailed the underwater city gig. But Pathos 2 as a whole works, it looks the part and feels like an authentic place that’s lived in – or used to be. There’s a nice openness to many of the areas, giving you a chance to hunt around for clues and figure things out for yourself, although Soma is fairly linear at its core. However, the atmospheric underwater sections outside the base could do with a little more direction, it’s great exploring the seabed, but slow to walk around and easy to get lost. There’s not much complexity to the gameplay in the environment and aside from exploration and minor puzzle solving, you’ll mostly be throwing switches and finding McGuffins. Although you can pick up objects, they’re mainly just for show. Inadvertently turning your apartment at the start of the game into a chaotic bombsite through the game’s silly object physics is amusing, but immersion-breaking.
The story unfolds as you discover the fates of the base inhabitants, often through the genre staples of computer and audio logs – and the more you find, the more you’ll get a clear picture of the events prior to your arrival. Again, it’s really hard to discuss the narrative and themes without spoiling the game, so I’ll try to give you an idea of what to expect without giving away too much.
The clue’s in the name.
It’s not long until you discover worker robots on the base which have acquired personalities; in fact, they’re convinced they’re human. As Simon unravels why this has happened, he starts to question whether in fact the robots are human. The game delves deeply into this theme and plays with it on a number of levels – again, the idea isn’t new to science fiction but it’s dealt with in a thought-provoking way and on a more personal level as a player, it encourages you to consider the question yourself in some clever ways. Of course, this is still a horror game, and the themes tie into the disturbing events you’ll discover on Pathos 2. As more of the truth is revealed, the knowledge of what’s occurred really is creepy – although it’s drip-fed to you artificially. Simon in particular is guilty of this – his chats are frustratingly brief and he doesn’t ask obvious questions at key moments, which becomes pretty unbelievable as the narrative develops.
But plot aside, let’s not forget this is a survival horror game, and you’ll sometimes encounter some nasty, scary things which want to kill you. Like Amnesia, you have no weapons and low health, so dealing with the monsters invariably means hiding in the dark and sneaking around. Soma borrows Amnesia’s sight mechanic – looking at enemies distorts your screen and is bad for your health – forcing you to look away from them and increasing the fear factor. The monster are quite scary, with great sound design and there are a few especially terrifying ones (the last one really gives me the creeps!). Unfortunately, in gameplay terms things haven’t moved on from Amnesia – encounters don’t evolve beyond crawling in shadows and hiding from the baddies. This involves plenty of patience and often cumulates with you having to activate an objective, drawing their attention. Then it’s a heart pounding, panicked chase or if you’re lucky, a scurry back into the shadows. As you rely on stealth, and objects you can pick up are plentiful, it’s a bit jarring that monsters can’t be distracted or lured by throwing items – even when it makes a racket. If you do fall into the horror’s clutches you aren’t killed outright – instead you wake up in the same area, injured, and the monster’s moved away – giving you some breathing room. You’ll have a limp and screwy vision until you can get healed, but it gives you another chance; nice to curb frustration, but reducing tension. The monsters are essential in creating a sense of threat in Soma – you never feel truly safe because you don’t know when they’ll show up – but they’re somewhat of a double-edged sword.
I found myself getting a bit aggravated at them impeding my exploration when I just wanted to see more of the base and the story. And apparently, I’m not alone; just recently someone released a mod for the PC version to make the monsters non-aggressive, which has been well-received.
As horror games go, Soma may not be the scariest of all, but it’s extremely creepy, with a rich atmosphere and a great sense of dread. Exploring Pathos 2 is rewarding and the setting and gameplay are solid but predictable. It’s survival horror by the numbers, though decently done. But for me, what stands out and makes Soma really worth your time is the compelling story and some thought-provoking and disturbing themes which will send a shiver up your spine. It not only encourages you to explore the base to uncover more of the backstory, but sticks with you long after the game’s finished.
There’s some interesting discussion online about the plot and themes to get involved in, and if you’ve played it, I’d be interested to hear your take on the story and what choices you made in the comments below.
Soma is a game with one foot in the past, and one in the future – it pushes survival horror in a new direction, and I’m looking forward to what Frictional Games does next.
Have you played Soma yet? Are you likely to pick up this game?
If so, please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
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A competent and creepy survival horror, elevated by a well-crafted story that really gets under your skin.