If you’re the kind of person who thinks survival-horror is all about the blood and gore, it might be time to think again. SOMA is a good deal less bloody than many other games in its genre and has no combat mechanics to speak of, but it is certainly no less atmospheric. Despite having a certain sense of “been there, done that” about it, the fantastically thought-provoking story, engrossing world and ability to set your nerves on edge will ensure that you don’t walk away disappointed. It might not be perfect, and it might fall agonisingly short of greatness, but SOMA will nonetheless please – and scare – all but the harshest critics.
The story begins with main character Simon Jarrett waking up in an abandoned underwater facility called Pathos-2, with no idea of how he got there. Pathos-2 is in ruins and filled with psychotic robots, as the artificial intelligence designed to keep the facility running – the WAU – has gone rogue, and Simon finds himself fighting for his survival. The story of precisely what is going on, and how Simon is involved, is one which will ultimately lead him to the deepest reaches of the ocean and into countless dangers.
There’s a good deal more to this story than meets the eye; the writing is superb and deals with several philosophical themes. While BioShock did the same thing, also being set underwater and with survival-horror elements, its focus was on politics and the writings of Ayn Rand; SOMA, in contrast, takes a much more personal approach by probing the nature of personal identity and philosophy of mind. If that sort of thing doesn’t rock your boat, you needn’t worry: there are thrills, twists, and turns aplenty to keep you occupied. The game’s themes can be engaged with on multiple levels, and they should be engaging to people of all tastes.
It is in the gameplay that SOMA begins to really establish its own identity. While other horror games of recent years have really ramped up the violence, it chooses to go the opposite route and take a more cerebral approach: Simon is permanently unarmed and there is no way to fight your enemies. Instead, you are required to sneak past them, making use of the shadows and the silence to keep yourself hidden. This helps to instil a sense of being overwhelmed at every turn, of being helpless in the face of monstrous foes considerably more powerful than you are.
Unfortunately, this sense doesn’t always last into the encounters themselves. The anticipation of them is superb, your nerves jangling as you realise you’re about to walk into danger – but once you actually reach the stealth sections, they aren’t always as interesting. Some of them are not paced well, and for others it can be difficult to tell what stimulus alerts an enemy to your presence. Nor are they helped by a mechanic whereby, if caught, you are attacked and black out, losing health – only to wake up in the exact same spot! The penalties for being caught are so light that it takes away from the tension, unless you happen to be on low health and all out of chances.
SOMA‘s real strength is in building up to these moments, even though they are something of a let-down. The game has a fantastic atmosphere, and just exploring Pathos-2, reading the journals or listening to the audio-logs of people who used to live there, is in itself engrossing. It takes a largely immersive approach to the gameplay, allowing you to interact with most objects in some way and therefore really plunging you into the world and all its horrors. There’s also an element of moral agency; although the decisions you make don’t affect the outcome of the game, they are no less powerful for it.
Where SOMA does start to struggle for its own identity is in its setting. Fans of Bioshock will get a sense of familiarity from its underwater environments, but the utilitarian nature of Pathos-2 is more reminiscent of Dead Space than anything else. It’s the context of the story that keeps it from seeming like a mere rehash, and all of the concepts that go with it. It also helps that, like both of those games, SOMA has excellent sound design that really sucks you in and enhances the experience.
The game is not, however, quite perfect. There are a few moments when the graphics are unconvincing, such as when water rises or falls across your view in an airlock; it seems to jump between the top and bottom of the screen too quickly, skipping the trickiest part of the animation. Also, human character models look unrealistic; they appear so rarely that it doesn’t seem much time was spent on them. This is a shame, as the voice acting is of the highest standard, leaving some characters sounding great but looking fake.
However, the biggest problem SOMA has – at least on the PlayStation 4 – is in loading and saving. If you die, it’s going to take a good thirty seconds to reload the game, which seems especially excessive if you’re finding a particular section difficult and are repeatedly defeated. The game also seems to struggle under its own weight; it’s unclear whether the autosave icon is also used for loading, but it is worryingly common for the game to briefly stop or judder when it appears in the corner of the screen. This can happen at the most frustrating of moments and often ends up ruining the tension, ultimately detracting from the whole reason the game exists.
Ultimately, there’s no doubt that SOMA is a wonderful game – but it also feels like it’s striving for greatness and falling just short. The story, voice-acting, and immersive atmosphere are all spectacular, but the occasionally underwhelming enemy encounters and technical issues hold it back. Unfortunately, this means that while it’s not to be missed by fans of survival-horror, it isn’t likely to be counted amongst the very best of the genre. Given just a little more TLC, SOMA may very well have reached those heights; as it is, it will have to content with just being a very good game.