Frictional Games has a psychological thriller on their hands with SOMA, a game which prompts questions about humanity amidst the chaos that lurks within PATHOS-II.
What does it mean to be human? That’s the question Frictional Games sets out to ask gamers within their new psychological horror game, SOMA. Hailed as a survival horror game, SOMA injects plenty of psychological debate into a compelling narrative that will leave gamers questioning the morality of their decisions right from the beginning. If a machine seems human, and thinks it’s human, is it okay to destroy that machine? It’s not all philosophical debate, though – the game will throw physical harm at the player in classic Amnesia style.
When it’s not throwing physical harm at the player, SOMA succeeds in tying together a mysterious narrative to develop a strong plot line with consequences that feel truly heavy. The world in which it takes place is well designed, though the rusting hallways gamers will stumble down aren’t without their downsides.
Players take on the role of Simon Jarrett, a young man working at a comic book store in Toronto, Ontario. After surviving a car accident that leaves his friend dead, Simon begins to suffer from brain trauma, and goes in to get a snapshot of his brain in the hopes that they’ll find a cure for his problems. Everything that happens after he sits down in that chair, however, is a psychological thrill-ride that only Frictional Games could cook up. Waking up in the bloodied halls that form the PATHOS-II deep sea station, with danger lurking around each corner, is just the beginning. The real torment is within the player’s head.
SOMA takes players through an intense and disturbing journey that leads them to question the meaning of humanity itself. As players progress through the game, they’ll encounter notes and audiotapes which help paint an intricate backstory that explains what happened to the crew of each station within PATHOS-II. Players will encounter plenty of unique puzzles along the way, though most of them are relatively easy to figure out compared to some other mystery games. Beyond that, Frictional Games has several different types of roaming monters that will be all too familiar for those who have played Amnesia: The Dark Decent, and although they can be terrifying at times, they’re actually the weakest link in the game’s arsenal.
While we have no problems with the avoid-and-hide gameplay the monsters bring with them, each of the monsters feels like a repetitive task – most of the time it’s a matter of unlocking a door, hiding because the monster hears the door, and then continuing onwards once the monster returns to its usual roving pattern. If a monster hits Simon, he goes into a ‘wounded mode’ and players must hobble to safety before they get hit again. If they get hit before healing, it’s game over and players reset back at a previous checkpoint. As a concept that makes sense, but it never feels like the player is truly in danger, mostly because monsters almost never notice crouched players huddling in corners. The monsters do mix up the pacing of the game, but ultimately are unnecessary to the rest of the narrative. Thankfully, the scenery does a great job distracting from where the monster AI might falter.
The setting of the game is downright gorgeous. Lighting is used to great effect, whether it’s seeing the glow of semi-robotic enemies as they lurch down decrepit corridors, or the atmospheric glow of red lights glistening among along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. PATHOS-II may be a rusting tomb, but the last bastion of humanity is incredibly well-designed and most gamers will likely find themselves in awe at several points throughout the game – especially when encountering underwater sections for the first time. Occasionally it’s easy to get lost along the optional paths in the game, but the levels always seem to point the player back to the right path sooner rather than later.
As a hero, Simon is easy to relate to, and his passage through PATHOS-II draws the player in. His vocal questions and debates about morality with an eventual cohort are a little ‘on-the-nose’ early on, but as the game progresses the player will likely begin to ponder humanity and their decisions the same way Simon does. By the end of the game, the weight of the decisions feel heavy, and Frictional Games makes the entire game feel like an emotional investment.
With so many clues and details hidden among the paths players will travel, it’s almost a shame when monsters show up to force the player to rush through an area, rather than appreciating the details – however grotesque they might be. The psychological questions the game places on Simon’s shoulders are without a doubt the game’s highlight, and these moments will leave a much more lasting impression than the times Simon is huddled in a dark corner, or avoiding a roving monster like so many other traditional scare-tactic games.
A direct comparison to Amnesia: The Dark Decent is inevitable, but ultimately they are very different experiences. Though both utilize horror and suspense to great effect, SOMA focuses more on advancing the plot with each element, and doesn’t always stick to the genre’s roots. Gamers will find plenty of mental puzzles along their way through PATHOS-II, and those provide the most diverse bits of gameplay SOMA has to offer. Whether it’s routing power across grids, figuring out passwords or rotating the right levers, the game does a great job of coming up with unique ways to advance to the next point.
SOMA is a survival horror game that is undoubtedly one of the best of the genre, and its setting and plot are shining examples of how to engage an audience. Frictional Games has done a great job in sustaining their horror game reputation through narrative alone, by way of a game that’s filled with probing questions of the soul and helped along by an engrossing plot. While the monster encounters feel forced and are certainly a weak point of the game, it does little to lessen the experience.
SOMA is available now for PC. Game Rant was provided a PC code for this review.