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‘SOMA’ Review: The Deep Descent

There aren’t many developers that are willing to explore tough philosophical questions with their games, and even fewer that are able to build an entire world around the answers they find. This is what SOMA is, more or less. It’s an incomplete answer to the question of what might happen if we separated human consciousness from the human body.

At first glance, this game appears to be the worst possible outcome that could come from our desire to “cure” mortality. It is that, and even though the premise has been explored numerous times before in various movies, books, video games, etc., the answer Frictional has for us may be the most unnerving one yet.

SOMA takes place in Pathos-2, a sprawling underwater complex nestled on the ocean floor that’s been designed to keep our species going. What’s left of humanity resides here along with a handful of undesirables who might find its grimy, abandoned look charming. It’s the kind of setting where you might expect to see a Big Daddy come strolling around a corner with a Little Sister in toe.

Pathos-2 doesn’t have any of the personality of Rapture, and it shouldn’t. It’s emphasis is on function over style, so while the views are undeniably extraordinary, it’s never as awe-inspiring as one might expect an underwater supercomplex to be.

There is a history here that makes Pathos-2 an interesting place to explore, if only to seek out any hidden clues that might shed some light on what happened there — and more specifically, what happened to the fish, and are they still edible or would it be safer to just eat around the bits that weren’t originally a part of the fish?

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The story has been the heart and soul of SOMA since its unveiling, when Frictional’s creative director Thomas Grip described it as the sort of horror game that would “chill you to your core, and confront you with questions about your very existence.”

And if it’s not chilling your core or toying with your sense of self, that’s probably because it’s busy testing your morality with impossible decisions in order to make you feel like a monster just before it locks you in a room with a legitimate monster to see how long you can last.

It sounds cruel, but I’ll take that over another horror game starring Slender Man, zombies, or the cast of Chuck E. Cheese’s (no offense, Scott). As much as I enjoyed those games, they do leave me with a craving for something a bit more substantial.

Frictional is uniquely skilled at crafting games that leave me satisfied, even when I’m not the one with the controller. There’s a simplicity to the way they’re designed that makes them exceedingly easy to understand. Amnesia was peppered with scavenger hunts, clever puzzles, chase sequences, and a few deadly games of hide and seek.

Amnesia was a simple game that had mastered the delicate art of balancing of visceral terror with slow-burn horror. I’ve already gone into great detail why it will be remembered for many years to come. In my defense, that was before SOMA took that formula and made it so much better.

SOMA has these things too, and they’ve been changed for the better. The puzzles don’t feel as forced now that they’ve been woven into the world in a more natural way, and finding what you need to move the story forward isn’t frustrating so long as you’ve been paying attention.

This rule also applies to the monster encounters, where an awareness of one’s surroundings can often mean life or death. I would’ve died a lot more than I did had I not taken a minute to look around every once in a while to scout hiding places and escape routes.

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Between the gradual realization of what’s going on and the horrifying reality that is existing in the bleak world of SOMA, you might not notice the occasional bad line reading, wonky AI pathing — I once escaped a sure death after my pursuer got stuck on a wall — or a room that looks unfinished compared to the others.

They’re largely insignificant flaws that shouldn’t take away from the experience, except when they do. The “problem” is a meh line reading has a tendency to stand out when there’s writing this good, and a lack of detail in an environment can be jarring when the rest of the game looks so good.

The massive attention horror games are enjoying right now has come at a cost. Many developers have sacrificed narrative depth in order to appeal to a wider audience, including the millions of people who watch Let’s Plays on YouTube or lifestreams on Twitch.

Grand ideas, taboo subject matter and intelligent conversations have taken a backseat to graphical prowess, simple mechanics and shallow frights. I don’t mind it. Many of the genre’s biggest success stories have employed classic haunted house scare tactics, and I think we can all agree that haunted houses are great up to a point.

The Final Word: Frictional Games set out to build a game that lingers in your thoughts long after you’ve set down the controller when most developers are content with amusing YouTube and Twitch audiences with gimmicks and jump scares, and in doing so, they made one of the best psychological horror games since Silent Hill 2.

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COMMENTS

18 Comments
  • Brodequin

    I love SOMA for being incredible adventure. While Penumbra and Amnesia were good, SOMA from the start to the end is… is just PERFECT. Thanks Frictional Games!

  • mark troops

    i love the game..and am i the only one who unplugged and unintentionally killed a person/robot and felt pretty guilty when they died lol

    • Brodequin

      I did it too and i did not felt guilty hehe

  • RiseCowthulhu

    I can recognize its a good game. I’m massively disappointed it was marketed as a horror title. It’s simply not scary.

    And don’t get condescending and try and argue I’m some FPS shooter toddler who doesn’t get it. I’m well read. I understand what they’re aiming for. And I still contend it’s not scary:

    Monsters are not a viable threat. It takes 10 seconds thought to circumvent the bipedal robots and floating fishbots.

    Creaky sounds and flickering lights are not scary or oppressive once you realize the lack of risk.

    The realization of what’s happened outside of your immediate surroundings is supposed to be impactful? Other titles have been bleak….this isn’t new.

    Philosophical debates re: what constitutes life aren’t haunting. And these icky decisions you’re confronted with…..lose their punch if you don’t have an alternative. Oh, I’m a bad guy? No, you couldn’t progress in the game if you didn’t perform this uncomfortable act.

    But it’s as if a lot of people feel like they’re obligated to applaud Frictional or else look like ignorant mouth breathers. It’s an interesting sci if tale. But it’s not scary. So if I’m coming across as unduly harsh….that’s probably why. There are so few console horror games I’m saddened the games fear factor was diluted by the developers need to be so “high brow” and present themselves as the video game version of Dick or Gibson.

    Interesting? Sure. Perfect? Hardly. Especially in the context of a horror game.

    • Brodequin

      You are right, this is better sci-fi tale than horror. But horror game doesn’t have to be scary to be good horror (not even one Silent Hill game was scary, but all of them are disturbing as hell). For me SOMA represents great mix of sci-fi, horror and adventure. Without being scary…

      • RiseCowthulhu

        See. I disagree with horror doesn’t have to be scary. It just seems a basic tenet of the genre. Hostel is disturbing. Torture porn is disturbing. But they’re crappy movies and the desire to view other people being tied down and carved up is sick. Plus they’re not effective horror.

        Not saying SOMA is bad. Not at all. But while it may make you uncomfortable that doesn’t fit it in the horror genre.

        • Brodequin

          Matter of opinion. Nothing else…

    • Quackmaster Black

      “Philosophical debates re: what constitutes life aren’t haunting.”

      Funny, because that’s the exact word I would use to describe the questions this game asks.

      “And these icky decisions you’re confronted with…..lose their punch if you don’t have an alternative. Oh, I’m a bad guy? No, you couldn’t progress in the game if you didn’t perform this uncomfortable act.”

      Except you do have alternatives, they’re just not especially great either. The decisions aren’t about good vs. bad, they’re about the themes of the game. They’re used to force you to think about the game’s ideas in a way no other game does.

      Is it an Outlast/Amnesia style horror experience that gets your heart racing while you’re playing it? No, but there are other games that can do that. There are other games that can do that with this same setting! But this game is trying to do something special, something no other game has done yet.

    • Matthew Mendenhall

      Congrats! You’re him!! The guy that has to shit all over something for the sake of being the guy that shits all over something!!

  • Ima Badlady

    Bought the game and it refused to work. Have no idea what the issue was, but I’m very sad that I couldn’t play this game.

    • Did you get it for PS4 or Steam? Have you tried contacting customer support?

      • Ima Badlady

        I got it on Steam. The game would play to a certain point before it would stop responding. I tried troubleshooting on Steam forums, but no one ever responded to my question.

        I don’t know. I was told that the specs were similar if not just a teensy bit different from Dark Descent and AMFP, both of which work fine on my PC, so I have no clue why it refused to work.

        • Brodequin

          Verify files integrity. After first game update it happened to me too. If still not working delete game and settings files (located in C:UsersYourNameDocumentsMy GamesSoma) and download it again.
          SOMA is more like Penumbra than Amnesia imo 🙂

          • Ima Badlady

            I’ll have to give it another shot when I’n done my current game then.

  • Matthew Mendenhall

    I, like most fans of Frictional Games, have been waiting on pins and needles for this game since it was announced a couple years back. And I finally finished it last night. I have never been so affected by a game like I was by SOMA. Kinda just sat there staring at the screen for awhile after it was all said and done. I agree with a few of the comments about it not being “scary enough”, and that’s okay. I don’t believe that’s what the studio was going for. Obviously it’s built off of the formula of the previous releases, but this one is very different. The jump scares were replaced by a foreboding atmosphere. The attention to detail in the sound effects was incredible. Never have I felt so isolated in an environment, while also so terrified of what may be around the corner. And the story!!! My god! The story!! I urge anyone that has played this all the way through to tell me the last time you experienced such an original sci fi narrative. I really don’t think you can. And that ending…. I still have goose bumps. When random reviews of this title say that “…it will stick with you long after the final scene closes…”, they’re not lying. This game will affect you, no question. And if it doesn’t? Maybe you’re not you after all…

    Congrats to Frictional Games for knocking it out of the park. 2 years of waiting, zero disappointments. Cheers!

    • Brodequin

      Last time i was affected that much by the game was when i first time finished Bioshock 2. Actually, it is still affecting me. Everytime i’m replaying it 🙂

  • Jeremy Smith

    I spent 3 years making art for this game, and I’m really glad to see the reception it’s getting. I’ve found it scary, and fun in equal measure, even though I’ve had to use a walkthrough a couple times cause a puzzle didn’t make sense, or I just couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do. Frictional have done a great job putting it all together, and making a game that’s worth your time.

    (Now, let’s see if this post works, since the last 5 times I’ve tried to post here have been immediately marked, and deleted. Please “disqus” let me back in the bloodydisgusting comments)

  • Taboo

    I finally beat it. Wow! What a great game. It really had me thinking in the end.

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