SOMA is the latest title from Frictional Games, creators of the Amnesia and Penumbra series, so expectations are high for their first game on PlayStation 4. Admittedly, the first impressions aren’t all that great as your character wakes up in a modern day apartment and heads off to the doctors for a brain scan, with its simplistic graphics and poor facial animations.
That all changes as, one brain scan later, Simon is transported hundreds of years in to the future to a research base deep under the sea. With some superb lighting and particle effects, any graphical rough edges are hidden and some of the underwater sections are particularly stunning and atmospheric to explore.
However, to explain any more of the story would spoil the game and you are best off going in knowing nothing, suffice to say something terrible has happened and you are seemingly the last human alive. What I can explain is how the game makes you feel, and boy does it make you feel an awful lot. Sorrow, anguish, horror, and terror are all in the mix as the story makes you question just what it means to be alive.
I must admit that what I read what Frictional games’ “complex philosophical conundrums” in a post on the PlayStation Blog I dismissed them out of hand. Surely a game couldn’t make me contemplate these things, but it does. Artificial intelligence, cloning, and assisted suicide are all covered within the narrative, along with with broader question of what defines life.
There are a few horrific moments, though nothing as gory as Until Dawn, but there is terror. The creatures that stalk the station are few and far between, but they make their presence known with constant screaming and the screen glitches and distorts like a digital TV as they get closer to you. You will also have to make some very hard decisions about who and what lives or dies and I do suggest that if you have lost a loved one in the recent past then give SOMA a miss, one scene near the end is particularly heartbreaking.
From glooping black puddles and distant creaks, to chirping computer terminals and an abundance of audio logs to access, the sound design is superb. In other games I would normally skip these additional stories, but I found myself drawn into listening to them all, so I could learn more about the strange new world Simon was trapped in. You can also eavesdrop on the final moments of any dead bodies you find, all of which have full voice acting, as does Catherine, your one companion on your journey to the bottom of the sea.
There are puzzles to be solved, but they’re all fairly simple, even if the solution may not be as obvious as you first think. For example, I was stuck in the very first room for half and hour as the door was locked and the computer terminal and door lock had no power. I searched lockers, picked up every object, looked under tables, but nothing could help. It was only in my frustration that I picked up a heavy metal grill and threw it at a window. It smashed and I could then climb out.
Everything within the world that you can interact with, be it computer terminals, switched or even toilet seats, is manipulated by holding the right trigger and moving the right stick. It’s utterly ingenious and becomes second nature within seconds, making even complex operations easy. One set of doors requires you to push and pull the lock, twist it back and forth and press buttons, and where other games might prompt you for a series of button presses, here it’s a series of natural flicks on the right stick.
Apart from the slightly off putting graphics at the very start of the game there is very little to fault, although the game could do with some optimisation. It takes ages to load and occasionally stops to load mid-game, during which the screen freezes and you lose the tense atmosphere. The frame rate also has the odd hiccup and slows to a crawl, but thankfully this doesn’t happen very often.
I’ve never played a game that’s affected me as much as SOMA, and to be honest I’m not sure I want to ever again, although I’m very glad I did. It has the DNA of movies like Alien, 2001, Sunlight, and Event Horizon, with a splash of the original Dead Space and Bioshock, but brings plenty of new ideas to the table. It makes you think about what it means to be alive, and indeed how you classify life, and is a brilliant example of just how far video games have evolved.