Beyond the sea… of robots
If there’s a developer who’s made a name for themselves in the horror genre in the past few years, it’s certainly Frictional Games. After having created the popular Amnesia series, the team delved into the bottom of the ocean to create one of the most disturbing, tense and desperate environments I’ve jumped into on my PS4 – but not one without its flaws.
Luckily, SOMA’s story is a big immersion factor. You play as Simon, a regular young man who, after having a car crash, takes part in a revolutionary experiment which consists of having his own brain scanned and virtually copied. He eventually wakes up in a strange facility with no idea of how he got there and must make his own way through the very mechanical buildings in order to figure out just what is going on. As you make your way through Pathos-II (the facility’s name) you’ll uncover events much larger than Simon could have ever imagined, making way for a great sci-fi narrative.
There are a few key plot twists to uncover and I mostly remained interested in Simon’s journey; however, halfway through the game becomes more predictable than before and loses some of its intrigue in the process. Having said that, I still found SOMA’s premise to be highly enjoyable, even if it needs the player’s simultaneous appreciation for its general theme and environment in order to be significantly impactful.
In the graphics department, SOMA is very much a mixed bag. Even taking into consideration the fact that the game is a few years old now, a close inspection reveals some unfortunately muddy low-res textures and more than a few severe framerate drops. Having said that, most of the game’s both interior and exterior environments look good and contribute greatly to the game’s tense and creepy atmosphere. The underwater sections are particularly shiver-inducing, whilst the splatter and shadow effects dot rooms with great detail.
While the game looks generally pretty good and has some great lighting effects…
There are also a lot of interactive objects scattered throughout the map, some of which you’ll need to find in order to progress, whilst most are just there to complete the scenery. Many of the objects which do matter are computer screens and interactive panels, introducing you to the very odd hand-drawn character art style. While these portraits don’t look bad, I found this to clash with the game’s mostly realistic environmental approach and, while admittedly a small detail, it’s still a part of the game’s aesthetic which risks pulling players out of immersion.
… you should avoid inspecting some details too closely.
Following suit with the last few years’ horror tendencies, you won’t pull a single trigger in all of the game’s roughly 10 hours (save for a very specific section). SOMA is about survival, exploration and distrusting the shadows and not about direct confrontation. In fact, if you’ve managed to find yourself face-to-face with one of the game’s many pseudo-mechanical-baddies, your best bet is to run away to safety.
The game’s extensive exploration feeds on its theme and atmosphere very well – even if there are some pacing issues.
When a monster eventually does get you, it most likely won’t actually kill you but instead knock you out before you awake nearby and try to get past it again. This takes most of the pressure off of dying and seldom will you actually see a “You were killed” screen unless you’re downright terrible at stealth.
Unfortunately, any distraction mechanics were thrown out the window in SOMA, which means you can’t push a monster away in any direction to go around it. Instead, they generally stick to certain patterns and wander around whichever location you find them in, turning a lot of the gameplay into a matter of finding the right path instead of using smarts or skill to get by.
Having said that, I’d dismiss any “walking simulator”-type criticism because SOMA managed to keep most of its tension even by simply having you walk, explore and peek around corners.
There are a lot of small details in the environments and interactive objects.
Sound design is very well accomplished in SOMA. Pathos-II creaks and apparently moans as you slowly traverse the enormous complex and get into the habit of looking everywhere around you in anxiety. Most NPCs you encounter – both human and robotic – sport convincing voice acting and add to the immersion factor, with the main character himself actually coming across as one of the less realistic performances due to his odd calmness during ultra-stressful situations.
The tense visuals are complemented by expertly-crafted sound design.
SOMA’s soundtrack is cleverly understated, only kicking in when things get frantic whilst also delivering smooth and distant notes in more isolated sections. Enemy placement is also detailed, making it easy to hear any distant or close up sound effects.
To sum up, SOMA is a much better experience when played with a good pair of headphones on.
The underwater sections are a treat to the ears.
SOMA is like a fine wine – it is complex, mixed and to be enjoyed slowly under its user’s focused mind. It slowly urges you on with its very interesting sci-fi premise and terrifying revelations. The survival-horror action can lack some subtlety and enemy AI leaves a lot to be desired but I still loved my 8-10 hours in SOMA’s underwater metallic hell-hole for its carefully constructed environments, attention to detail and (sometimes) stunning sceneries.
If you’re a fan of horror games and enjoy carefully constructed sci-fi narratives, SOMA is a great title to add to your PS4’s collection – just don’t expect head-turning visual detail nor very advanced enemy AI to challenge you.
I’ll just show myself out.
Note: this review was based on a copy provided by the developer.
PS4 Pro Notes – Boost Mode
There were reports during the 4.50 firmware update beta that SOMA was one of the few titles which ran much worse when using PS4 Pro’s new Boost Mode. While I didn’t replay the whole game since the update came out, I did replay the game’s first 30 minutes with no problems at all – if anything, the game felt smoother for the most part. However, any PS4 Pro users beware that issues may occur with Boost Mode turned on. Luckily, turning it off is as easy as reaching the System Settings menu and disabling it there.