It’s been nearly two years since “SOMA” was first teased by Frictional Games. The new release marks the third franchise launched by the Swedish developer, further adding to their pedigree in the survival horror genre. Much like the studio’s earlier series, “Penumbra” and “Amnesia”, “SOMA” focuses more on the psychological elements of horror. Rather than combat, the emphasis is centered around exploration and puzzle solving. When presented with a threat players must use stealth and ingenuity to stay alive. It’s an approach that is quickly becoming more popular within the survival horror genre, but the game’s strong narrative helps it stand out from other titles.
Players assume the role of Simon Jarrett, a man recovering from a severe brain injury sustained during a car accident that killed his friend. With the effects of the trauma still lingering he agrees to an experimental brain scanning procedure. But after blacking out during the scan, he awakens to find himself is a strange, futuristic environment. Simon then discovers that he’s aboard an underwater research facility named PATHOS-2, which also happens to be inhabited by hostile robots. Soon after, he establishes communication with Catherine, a crew member onboard the station. She goes on to explain that PATHOS-2 was originally designed to function as a “space gun” which jettisoned ships into orbit after Earth was struck by a comet in 2103, leaving its surface uninhabitable. It is then revealed that both Catherine and Simon are “scans” of their former selves that have been copied onto hard drives. Simon’s chip is embedded in the corpse of one of Catherine’s colleagues, while her chip is transferred into his trusty Omnitool. The two then embark on a journey to launch a collection of other scans into space aboard the ARK as a last effort to preserve humanity.
Aside from the compelling story, it’s the environments where the game really succeeds. Certainly, ventilation shafts and gore spattered hallways aren’t new to games of this nature, but it’s how those areas are juxtaposed that’s truly unique. One moment players will find themselves stepping over a headless corpses in a dark corridor and the next they’ll be walking along the sandy ocean floor. The undersea areas between the various annexes of the station are by far the most interesting and atmospheric. The submerged environments are loaded with detail and character which tends to get lost when players are forced to return to the commonality of the interiors. Although the dark halls and rooms look exactly like you’d expect from a sci-fi horror title, exploring these area is still a lot of fun. Players can pick up and/or interact with nearly every object they come across. This comes in handy, whether you’re clearing debris from a blocked path or gaining access to a locked room by using a chair to break the window. Players that take the time to rifle through lockers and desk drawers are also rewarded with items that provide more details about the game’s grim storyline.
While many aspects of “SOMA” are well executed, the game certainly isn’t without its problems. The joyful experience of exploring the eerie environments is often abruptly disrupted by confrontations with various monsters. These encounters require players to dart from room to room while avoiding their attacker’s sightline. Fleeing from the beasts when spotted is difficult due to a partial paralysis and distorted display. Those unable to find a dark place to hide or make the unfortunate choice of running down a corridor that leads to a locked door are met with a violent end. Players can survive one attack from a monster, which leaves their screen blurred and movements inhibited, but a second onslaught results in death. There are “health stations” that take the appalling form of alien orifices that players must shove their hand into in order to resuscitate. But these areas are often limited, can only be used once, and require a lengthy amount of time to engage. Fortunately, the cat and mouse encounters with the horrific creatures are fairly limited and only occur a handful of times throughout the game. At first, trying to quickly repair a door lock with the ghastly moans and approaching footsteps echoing down a hallway is truly unnerving, but after several failed attempts the encounters become more tedious than frightening.
“SOMA” also suffers a bit in the technical department. Too often the game hangs for several seconds during autosaves, which can slow the momentum, especially when building tension. It is also a common occurrence to get caught in video game limbo after clipping through walls and getting trapped below the levels forcing players to restart. The physics system is pretty remarkable, but the graphics aren’t quite polished enough to compensate for the technical hitches. The character models are blocky and almost primitive when compared to the beautifully rendered environments. The monsters also seem a little familiar in their design. With such a complex and well structured story it’s a shame not to see that same creativity in the execution of the game’s creatures.
Aside from the technical issues and some redundant gameplay, “SOMA” is still a wonderful addition to the genre. Fans of horror games certainly will love the eerie atmosphere and psychological elements. The game’s plot is also truly compelling and brought to life by terrific voice acting. It’s one of the strongest narratives in recent memory with a haunting ending that will stick with you hours after finishing the game. “SOMA” is a strong offering that manages to combine a thought provoking story with tense gameplay and wonderfully creepy environments. And right now, PlayStation Plus members get a 10% discount when purchasing the game, making it an even harder opportunity to pass up on.