Somerville Review

Space needles.
Somerville Header

How would you fare in the middle of an alien invasion? Somerville asks just such a question – one which has been been at the core of so many works of fiction – following an everyman as he struggles to survive such an overwhelming catastrophe and reunite with his family in a truly cinematic adventure.

Of course, he’s not quite an everyman (and this is a video game). The game opens as so many apocalyptic films do with a slice of normality that is ripped apart before your very eyes, but after being party to one spectacular aerial battle right above his home, contact with one of the combatants grant him the mysterious ability to manipulate an alien material that has sprouted from the land. All he needs is a light source to channel a dissolving energy through – this is at the core of much of the game’s puzzling.

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Pretty much every moment in this game looks like concept art for a AAA game or movie production, and there’s an eeriness to so many of the places you pass through and moments that are reminiscent of classic alien invasion science fiction. In particular it evokes classic 1950s sci-fi thrillers like War of the Worlds, though you could argue the Spielberg rendition is a closer inspiration. Either way, there’s the clash of the normal and the otherworldly as alien needles hang in the sky above motorways filled with crashed and abandoned cars, as you see their scanning beams of light off in the distance while you trudge through the environments.

Somerville Stunning Vista

It would be easy to assume this is a side-scrolling adventure similar to Limbo or Inside – developer Jumpship was co-founded by Dino Patti, a co-founder of Playdead, after all – but you generally have more freedom to move around in the 3D environments, even if you largely have a side-on camera view. There’s a great artistry to how each scene is composed, the way the camera moves to follow you, or cuts to a different view, and it’s a huge part of the game’s tone. The same can be said of the audio, which excels in blending together atmospheric audio with the ASMR-worthy sounds of melting away the alien residue, and occasional moments of a piano-led soundtrack.

While it looks and sounds fantastic, there’s a lot of rough edges that can make Somerville feel a chore to play. Controlling the guy feels a bit too indistinct, and it’s always a bit too vague when you’re trying to interact with things in the world. It could be trying to press a button, grab onto a door, box or light, it always just feels too woolly and leads to frustration as you walk into the wall either side of a ladder time and again. Add to that the ease with which you can get caught on the scenery and that some of the scenarios have Limbo-like instant deaths, and it can be a bit annoying to play.

Somerville Alien Beam

I think my bigger disappointment really comes from the lack of attachment that I feel to the protagonist’s family, and by extension, his journey. After they’re separated during those spectacular opening moments of the game, Somerville later leans into Hollywood style dramatic convenience. With no dialogue in the game, it feels unearned for him to be reunited with his wife and child at the very first camp of survivors that he stumbles across, especially when they then decide to immediately leave this potential safe haven to run through a town that’s crawling with prowling alien robots.

Even more contrived for me is the reappearance of the family’s dog, which stuck by him at the start, gets left behind, and then miraculously reappears many miles away. At least the guy will hug and interact with his family to show their bond, but the dog? All he does is stare at the dog when it’s nearby – he can’t pet it to provide comfort or solace, doesn’t hustle it closer during tense moments or anything.

Somerville Family

As he is ripped away into the final act of the game’s 3-4 hour playtime, the narrative leaps into a far more abstract direction. Again, there’s no dialogue to get across what he’s going through, but it’s not hard to infer the general gist of the story at this point. The ending, though, is another matter, with multiple endings to find that are more than a little unclear. Were it not for Achievements popping as each ending is earned, it might be easy not to realise there’s different options. As for how you get the final ‘good’ ending? Well, I’d expect 99% of players will simply resort to looking that up with online guides.

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Summary
Somerville is a fantastically evocative game as it depicts an everyman's journey through a War of the Worlds-like alien invasion, leaning on countless sci-fi tropes and ideas along the way. Disappointingly, it's undercut on a number of levels by controls and a detached feeling and hastiness with some parts of the story it's telling.
Good
  • Every frame is a picture
  • Evocative of classic alien invasion sci-fi
  • Restrained puzzles keep an emphasis on the story
Bad
  • Too many rough edges to simply playing the game
  • I never felt attachment to the family or dog
  • You'll simply look at a guide to get the 'good' ending
6
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I'm probably wearing toe shoes, and there's nothing you can do to stop me!

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