“Terror Under The Sea”
SOMA is a sophisticated and chilling look into what makes us human. Ripe with thought-provoking, philosophical quandaries and engaging twists, developer Frictional Games’ latest horror title cleverly wiggles its way into the recesses of the mind. It’s a lonely experience that carries an infectious sense of weight, constantly posing questions of consciousness and identity. SOMA is driven more by its surprising narrative than the survival horror elements you’d come to expect from Frictional, but the end product is more memorable for it. There are certainty terrifying encounters that reside within SOMA’s eerie corridors and foreboding openings, yet nothing quite overtakes the psychological fear of the unknown.
Submerged deep below any sign of civilization, you assume the role of Simon Jarrett, who has awoken aboard an underwater research facility lodged inside the sea floor. It’s a terrific setting complete with an unnerving atmosphere that is right at home within SOMA’s complex themes. Exploring the facility quickly reveals a set of nightmarish events that have taken place, and the discomforting sequence has yet to see resolution. The station, Pathos-2, is a littered and often bloody mess, suited with heaps of revelatory context to guide Simon through his journey in figuring out what happened. While making your way through the fear-inducing facility, you’ll soon befriend a peculiar character named Catherine, a woman who seems to have come to grips with what is going on. She proceeds to lead you from outpost to outpost within Pathos-2, as you assist her in completing an important task. As to be expected, everything is not as it seems and SOMA takes much delight in playing with perspective, elevating it above what easily could’ve been another cheap floundering for scares.SOMA commits to a level ambiguity that successfully instills a sense of unsureness that directly has an affect on everyone and everything in the game. Like the very best horror products, SOMA encapsulates scares and gore, but isn’t driven by them. The plot and ideas moving SOMA along are fascinating, but the moment-to-moment gameplay, less so. Most of the runtime consists of the same gameplay loop: evading monsters and solving puzzles that frequently verge on becoming an annoyance. There’s a constant and evident struggle for the gameplay to add something meaningful to the story, creating a perpetual back-and-forth between monotony and revelation. When the gameplay correlates with the task at hand the results are excellent and often emotionally affecting, but the opposite quickly becomes a slog.
Pathos-2 isn’t infested with jump scares and enemy encounters, leaving plenty of time to take a breather and soak in tidbits of compelling backstory to the dilapidated station. Whether sifting through emails, audio logs, drawings or extracting memories from corpses and terminals, SOMA leaves some of its best narrative beats hidden behind the barrier of exploration. There’s not a lot to manage in terms of inventory, as there’s always only a few items in play at any given time. With the exception of the more drawn-out puzzles, you only really need to worry about an item or two to progress through the story. This cycle of interaction with inventory and puzzles can become redundant and frustrating when not directly matched with narrative headway, especially when enemies are part of the equation. Fortunately, the types of puzzles with multiple moving parts are suitably distanced from each other, allowing adequate room for the simpler ones to fill the voids.As tasking as some time-consuming puzzles can become, SOMA manages to remain engaging by its incessant moral dilemmas. No predicament is black and white, and each question raised never forces you to take sides. The real horror behind SOMA stems from the intellectual storytelling, rather than the anxiety-inducing survival sprints many horror games rely upon. However, SOMA’s more daring take on horror comes with a few caveats, namely from the heavy reliance on narrative. While the core ideas and overall arc of the story are easily the strongest aspect of the game, the performances to sell the unfolding nightmare can be a bit underwhelming at times. Ranging from middling to strong, the acting is inconsistent and often undersells important scenes. Simon’s voice acting is the biggest offender, as his reactions come across as uncharacteristic and clash with what the script intends. While story reasons may slightly justify his unpredictable nature of reaction, it’s jarring within the moment and continually took me out of the experience.
What pulled me right back in was the phenomenal sound design, which always kept me on my toes. Monster encounters were made especially tense and emotional moments were heightened when matched with the unsettling, often terrifying soundtrack. The overall design, itself, is praiseworthy and lends its excellence to an already outstanding atmosphere. Visual design deserves mentioning as well, for the frightening interiors soaked in gore, to the desolate feel of the ocean floor, go a long way in strengthening SOMA’s unnerving aura. This quality of distinction between environments is undermined by intrusive loading screens and frame rate issues that persisted throughout my 10 hours with the game. Repeatedly my immersion was broken by unwelcome loading screens that froze the game while they processed what lay ahead. The game also suffered a few crashes during my playthrough, resulting in a loss of progress and breaking of tension. Nonetheless, putting up with the unstable state of the engine is well worth it, as the narrative payoff trumps prior missteps and the lasting impression, stick.Conclusion: SOMA is surprising in how it manages to sustain an infectious sense of ambiguity while delivering a thought-provoking narrative. The variety in terms of gameplay can feel stretched, slowly running its course overtime, but the captivating nature of the story is sure to keep you locked in. Frictional Games’ efforts are bound to get infect your mind, and if the unsettling environments and terrifying encounters fail to do so, the fascinating complexity of the narrative will. Perhaps SOMA’s biggest accomplishment is that it succeeds in orchestrating something much more meaningful in a genre overflowing with substandard jump scares.
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