The feeling of déjà vu sinks in fairly early on with Frictional Games’ latest, Soma. This underwater dystopia immediately brings to mind the world of Rapture in Bioshock, whilst the varied ‘monsters’ and the way you deal with them recall Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Similarities to other games aside, Soma manages to be something entirely unique by way of an interesting and involving story.
You play as Simon Jarrett, a man with brain trauma due to a dramatic car crash. One day, he heads off to have a scan to help repair the injury. Arriving at a seemingly abandoned office space, Simon stumbles upon a man who provides some vague excuses for the dishevelled room. Simon allows him to perform the scan, and – after what appears to be moments later – he awakes. Yet the room he awakes in is different than the room he had entered. Making his way out of the scanning device, Simon is presented with a dark and dangerous environment, and he has to understand where he is and get back to safety.
With story-based games like Soma, it’s hard to discuss the intricacies of the plot in a review. This is even more difficult when, like Soma, simply discussing the themes of the story is almost a spoiler in itself. To say the least, Frictional Games’ foray into the science-fiction genre is an impressive feat alone and deals with the interesting theme of immortality in a solid, impactful manner. Where the previous Frictional Games release, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was an immersive and terrifying horror experience, Soma is a contemplative, unsettling experience with dashes of horror elements thrown in the mix.
Simon progresses through rusted-out corridors that leak water, there are electric cables laying around the place, and creaks and groans echo to build atmosphere; all of which exert a general feeling of uneasiness. He soon encounters various ‘monsters’ and interactive plot points. I say ‘interactive plot points’, as the way the plot develops is a nice take on the tropes of a narrative-driven first-person game: where in other games you might find an audio recording or an entry in a diary, Simon can ‘interact’ with bodies that lay around the facility to hear what that corpse had previously said whilst they were alive. These ‘interactions’ flesh out the immersive story and don’t feel out of place in the same way that random audio logs strewn around environments can sometimes feel. As mentioned, this is a first-person perspective game, and besides picking up items around the world and performing a few limited actions, you’re really not given all that much to physically do – creating what is quite possibly just a very well-disguised ‘walk-‘em-up’.
Just as in Amnesia, Simon is incapable of defending himself when the monsters come creeping along, and instead has to rely on his superb skill of ‘hiding behind a box til they pass’. Where the ‘hiding behind the box til the monsters pass’ element worked superbly in Amnesia given its core role in that games story (stare at the monsters too much and you’ll go insane), it feels shoe horned in here to add tension where it doesn’t necessarily need to be. The reason for these ‘monsters’ is explained later on in the game, and this revelation provides one of the more emotional moments. In fact, thanks to the strength of the story, there were points where I found myself unable to move because of an exceptionally emotional plot point, rather than because I had encountered a ‘monster’ that I needed to hide from.
To explain this a bit further and provide a bit of clarity, the next two paragraphs will contain slight spoilers for an early moment in the game. Skip this paragraph if you wish to go into Soma completely unspoilt:
These emotional moments drive home Soma’s plot perfectly. The atmosphere is so perfectly realised that it is frustrating when you do encounter a hostile monster and are left to hide behind a box for five minutes. As mentioned, this device worked perfectly within Amnesia as it helped build tension. However, within Soma, a game that is more about atmosphere than pure terror, it feels out of place. It feels like wasted time, as if it’s there to simply tide you over to the next plot development and provide some ‘difficulty’ into the game. There are some encounters with monsters that cause some exceptionally frustrating insta-deaths. One particular chase sequence had me dying quite often, resetting me to a checkpoint where I had to do it all over again. The path you have to take during the chase is quite confusing as the environment is dark and full of closed-off exits. I understand that part of the way to build atmosphere and tension is to add an element of confusion; however, if this isn’t implemented properly, confusion can easily turn to frustration, which if repeated often enough can turn into tediousness.
It’s disappointing then that the ‘monster’ encounters feel slightly out of place within the game. Even though they are explained within the plot later on, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that they feel as if they were only included to try and emulate a feeling from a different game. It’s also disappointing that without these encounters, Soma would simply add up to being just a game where you walk around an underwater facility and progress the plot every fifteen minutes by interacting with something in the environment. Whilst that is not a problem for some games – Dear Esther, for example – I can see some gamers becoming frustrated with the lack of interactivity within the world.
Adding to that frustration would be the amount of freezing and frame rate issues on the PS4. For the most part, it looks visually impressive; however, there were times where the frame rate would slow down to a tiring crawl. Most notably was with one of the aforementioned chase sequences, which naturally requires you to be quickly reactive – something that becomes exceptionally difficult to do when the frame rate isn’t keeping up with the action on screen. Then there were moments where the game would simply freeze whilst loading, or get caught on a loop – for no particular reason. One moment found me moving from inside the facility to the ocean outside, the transfer chamber was filling up with water and continued to fill up without opening the door to the outside. These weren’t game-breaking bugs, but they were frustrating enough to mention, especially when I found myself truly getting immersed in the story. Hopefully these will be patched out at a later stage. I am unsure whether these bugs are evident on the PC version of the game as well.
One of the positives about the monsters are their varied and unique designs. Each monster that you encounter is entirely their own being and exhibits their own unique personality as they shuffle around the superbly designed levels. As you progress throughout the various rooms, you encounter mess halls and living spaces, and each feels like a lived-in environment. Sleeping quarters have family photos and clothes strewn around the place, helping build upon the already well realised characters. This attention to detail with the monsters and environment is evident entirely here, making the world exciting to simply exist in, and detracts from some of the tired copy/paste designs of other games.
On top of this monster and level design is the simply flawless sound design, which once again helps immerse you in the world completely. As you creep around the metal corridors, your footsteps echo in a natural manner. It’s a hard thing to explain – how footsteps sound natural in a game – yet, even though you cannot see your feet, you feel as if every footstep that you take forward matches with every footstep that you hear. Throw in the tremendously terrifying sound design for the monsters alongside the creaks and groans of the world and it’s easy to become immersed in the reality of this world.
At the core of Soma is a solid and truly powerful story. Combine this story with some of the finest voice acting I’ve ever heard in a game, and Soma suddenly becomes a must-play game for those interested in narrative-driven games. The discussions Simon has with the beings he encounters – especially in the latter moments – made the game truly heart breaking for me, and this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the vocal talent on display here. Jared Zeus, who voices Simon, and Nell Mooney, who voices Catherine Chun, both deliver exemplary vocal performances that are fully-realised characters. The other vocal performers are great as well, but the core performances are fully-realised characters that provide a solid emotional through line and what cements Soma’s story, making playing through the frame rate issues worthwhile.
I truly wish that those frame rate issues weren’t a problem, and that the monster encounters were tweaked in some way that didn’t feel as if they were shoe horned in to create unnecessary tension, as otherwise this game would be getting a much higher score than what I’m giving it. As it is, the immersive story, the perfect voice acting and great sense of atmosphere within Soma is solid enough that, even with its flaws, I do strongly recommend playing it.