The mind is a funny thing. It helps us express our creativity, solve complex problems, communicate with and relate information to one another. In many ways it defines who we are and how we perceive the world around us.
But our mind can also be our worst enemy. It can make us illogical or rash, see things that aren’t really there and with the right stimuli force us to act against our better judgment. Fear is a powerful force that controls many of our basic instincts and Frictional Games hopes to exploit this with their wonderfully crafted game SOMA.
Frictional Games is no slouch when it comes to making creepy games and with acclaimed series such as Penumbra and Amnesia under their belt they’ve made of name for themselves in the horror fandom. I’ve followed their releases since Amnesia: The Dark Descent and have been fascinated with the buzz that each of their games has generated.
As a fan of all things horror (video games, movies, comics, you name it!) I was eager to give one of their games a try, but until recently they have only been available on PC. I’m not going to lie, my PC is a bit of a potato and can barely run the word processor I’m using to write this! So that was unfortunately out of the question.
When I heard they were going to be releasing their latest horror-fest on the PS4 I was more than ecstatic! I would finally be able to experience first hand what Frictional Games had to offer.
Like most games though, I rarely buy them the moment they are released Then when I saw SOMA pop up in one of Sony’s Flash Sales a while back I jumped on it immediately. Now all I needed to do was mentally prepare myself and work up the nerve to play it!
It didn’t sit in the backlog nightmarescape for too long and in the spirit of the Halloween season here we are!!! So let’s plug in those headphones, turn up the volume and turn down the lights!
Fade to black… WHOOOSH…
Scary noises! Flashing lights!! Disturbing imagery!!!
With one look, the cover art for SOMA makes you uneasy, there isn’t really anything particularly scary about it but it subtly unnerves you, hinting at some of the themes you will encounter when you play the game. The glitchy esthetic coupled with a distorted face that stares into the depths of your very soul do a wonderful job of making me want to play this game with all the lights on! I just can’t shake those eyes!!
The uneasy feeling the game gives you doesn’t stop there either. As the game loads it carries the visual themes forward, but it’s not just the visuals that get you, it’s the sound design! The atmosphere that Frictional constructed instantly entombs you with sounds that are haunting, pulsating, mechanical and electronic. There is something unnatural about it yet familiar and I think that’s what makes it so effective. And we haven’t even left the menu screen yet!!
To say Frictional knows what they are doing is an understatement. The fact that I momentarily hesitate before clicking New Game is a testament to their genius.
But would be a snooze-fest of a review though if I stopped there. So I tightened up my suspenders and pull up my socks and prepared myself to dive into the unknown.
If I could use one word to describe SOMA it would be uncertainty. The game never lets you feel too comfortable and just when you are starting to become familiar with what’s happening around you it’ll uproot everything, give you the runaround two or three times and then throw you back out to the wolves (or maybe it’s psychopathic sentient robots!).
The opening of the game is a great example of these transitional periods as well. Your character wakes in his apartment after having a dream about an accident he suffered in the past that resulted in him having severe brain trauma. He is scheduled to meet a man named Dr. Munshi who is studying a scanning technology that can hopefully help patients with brain injuries. From what I gathered the machine can scan your brain and allow them to unobtrusively study it and determine the best course of action to a full recovery.
You sit in the machine. The visor closes over your head. Everything goes black and you wake in what looks like a worn down space station from the Alien franchise. I ask myself, is this a result of our character’s brain injuries? Is he hallucinating or dreaming again? Or could this be real and the machine transported us to a different location or time?
And just when we get “comfortable” with our new surroundings, out of nowhere we discover we are actually deep under the Atlantic ocean!!!
All throughout the game the environments are thematically consistent (oppressive, claustrophobic) but this is especially true of the underwater portions. Where in space you may feel isolated and overwhelmed by the vast volumes of nothingness, deep within the ocean everything seems much more foreign. This all induces a sort of paranoia where you hesitate to turn each corner and move forward. You are constantly worrying if it’ll be the pressure that kills you, the lack of oxygen or the creatures that lurk in the watery darkness.
You can hear the air bubbles as they expel from your diving suit, the creaking structures as they fight against the massive pressure of the immense amount of water pushing at their foundations, and of course the sounds of the unknown that echo from all directions. This is all topped off with a ambient soundtrack that increases its intensity at exactly the right times.
The gameplay loop on the other hand consists of quietly exploring creepy environments, unraveling the mysteries of Pathos-II combined with “What the eff is that!” and “Run the eff away!!”, repeat. Since there are no weapons or any real way to defend yourself, running is usually your only option.
Honestly on the surface that gameplay doesn’t seem like much but luckily the mysteries you do uncover while you explore SOMA’s world are fascinating, and coupled with it’s atmosphere, the game as a whole makes you want to come back for more. It’s the contrast between the exploration sections and the frantic “I need to get out of here!” moments that make it all so compelling.
If I was to complain about one thing it would be how the story is delivered. As interesting and thought provoking as it can be, for the most part I am only interested in how this all affects our main character and the state of the present situation. The revelations you come to discover and their consequences are what I care about.
I do understand that we need some backstory to fully grasp our motivations for what we need to do, but most of it is locked behind computer terminals and audio logs. The game would only benefit by making these story beats reveal themselves more organically instead of having to break from the flow of the game to stop and read something.
SOMA is a stressful and thrilling ride from beginning to end that’s more than worth your time. As a psychological horror it artfully plays with your audio and visual senses and heralds themes that will make you sit back and think.
Truly a great game that I would suggest to any horror fan!!