by Johnathan Irwin
reviewed on PC
A Returning Friction
Mention Frictional Games to a gamer, you're likely to find yourself engaged in a twenty plus minute conversation about how Amnesia: The Dark Descent was one of the best horror titles of all time. I'm going to throw it out there now, I found Amnesia: The Dark Descent to be a good game but highly overrated. I found it to have a less enthralling narrative, with less terrifying moments than the three Penumbra games they made only a few years before. I found it to be several steps back from the work I'd seen before. The question to me when I saw their new game SOMA start to show up on the radar was how have they improved? Over all their successes, both creatively and financially, can they take all their past experiences and combine them into a new horror game for the ages?
Simon Jarrett has become the victim of a cruel twist of fate. A car crash has killed someone very close to him, and left him with a brain injury leaving him with an estimate of only months to live. His one hope comes in the form of an experimental study, and with nothing left to lose Simon puts it on the line in the hopes of not having to worry about his quickly impending doom. The situation would be stressful for anyone; but it only gets worse for Simon.
After blacking out during the course of an experiment, Simon wakes up in a place very unlike the office he had just been in. The familiarity of his home town is a far cry from where he finds himself, a derelict research facility nestled at the bottom of the ocean. How did he get here? How much time has passed? These two questions, and many more, slam the player all at once. Slowly but surely each will be answered over the next several hours of the game that will take players down a path of determining the difference between being alive and actually living.
Isolation, Condemnation, Revelation
To me, SOMA is not a horror game. Don't jump on me yet, because I also don't think it's a bad game and prefer it over all of Frictional Games' previous works. SOMA deserves to spearhead a new category that I would call Atmospheric Tension, because that's exactly what it provides. From the cold, lifeless hallways of PATHOS-II to the dark ocean floor, there is always that lingering tension? What danger is around the next corner? What is going to happen to Simon? How do you escape? The cherry on top of the tension is that unshakable feeling of always being watched.
As the story plays out, exploration is encouraged for even more details to the events that transpired on PATHOS-II before Simon awoke. With a newfound gift, he can touch the bodies of the deceased and hear their final moments, he can also use this gift on certain intercom terminals to hear the final conversations of dead crew members. While they are gone, free from the nightmare, Simon experiences them in their place through listening to the memories and exploring once-inhabited rooms of the facility.
This could easily be a story with loose ends left unexplained, but Frictional Games makes sure that doesn't happen. In fact, they make sure to provide answers fairly early on in the game rather than saving them for the end. At first it seemed odd, especially with a big twist so early on, but as the rest of the game went on it felt right. Having something so in your face so early, really drives home the questions of morality that the player is faced against often.
What Was That About Danger?
While often you're free from danger, there are times when it will come in the form of creatures out to get you. A few of them are actually terrifying, though they don't come until very late in the game. The first few you encounter feel more like interactive set pieces than monsters. Moving too slow to be a danger, these monsters add very little urgency to the situation and when combined with the fact that they aren't the smartest at hunting you down they are more of an accent on a tension than an actual threat.
The two that appear in the late game, however, are much different, not in terms of AI but in speed. If they catch wind of you, which they most certainly will, you'll be running for your life desperately looking for a hiding spot before they can kill you. These two also have much better model designs that actually made me afraid when I saw them rather than just simply smirking. If they had shown up earlier, my mind would be changed about my conflicted view on whether or not this should be a horror title or not.
The Darker Descent
SOMA may not be the horror game I was hoping for, but what I got was still a very enjoyable experience. With a stronger narrative than any of the previous work Frictional Games has offered, and a more enthralling setting that serves as far more than just a backdrop the game already takes a leap above many other titles. Sprinkle on the questions of morality to a level few games want to tread to, and what you have is an emotional eight hours of tense drama. If you're looking for jump scares, you won't find many here. If it's an intriguing story you're after, then SOMA is a title you can't miss.
Interesting story played out in intriguing ways, tense environment lends itself often to the plot, questions of morality leave the player thinking
Most monsters are lackluster with poor visual design and AI