And now, the final item by Frictional Games. For Halloween 2015, we are going to take a look at the developer’s new big hit, SOMA.
|Console||PC/Mac/Linux (Steam), PlayStation 4|
|Purchase (PC/Mac/Linux)||Purchase from Steam.|
* Previously published at Indie GAGA *
And finally for October 2015, we get to the final game of the Frictional Games catalog: SOMA. Ever since its release back in September, the game managed to become a sleeper hit and received a massive amount of praise.
But before you read this, I have to warn you that this review WILL contain spoilers. If you have not played this game yet and you wanted to, then I suggest you close this page and go play it. What better time than now?
No really, go play it.
PLAY IT OR I’LL GO BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF Y—
Alright. Let’s start over. So have you played the game yet?
Yeah? Okay, good.
No? Just don’t care about spoilers? Whatever, don’t yell at me when we get to the good bits.
From the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Penumbra series, a new horror game hits Steam’s library and even the PlayStation 4’s library. Just like with all of those games, this one is another first-person horror puzzle game—this time with the new and improved HPL3 game engine.
Does it outdo its predecessors? Well, let’s take a look.
So you’re a Canadian everyman named Simon who lives in an apartment and works at a comic book company.
Ahhhhh! Canadians? How horrifying!
(I’m just kidding, guys. You’re all cool.)
While you do your normal, everyday activities, you learn that you have brain damage and that your best friend has died sometime ago. Well, time for my doctor’s appointment. Tally-ho!
Wait, where the hell is everybody?
So for whatever reason, you have to get past a locked door at this section and then you finally meet Doctor David Munshi.
Holy maple syrup on a Kraft dinner! It’s an actual person!
…Hehe. Sorry, had to get the Canadian stereotype jokes out of the way.
But yeah, SOMA is oddly enough the first release by Frictional Games to feature living human characters. Everything else you meet in Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Penumbra series is either a monster or a supernatural being. And anything human is already dead.
So Simon does a brain scan in Dr. Munshi’s office, until…
He finds himself on the movie set of Alien.
Well, I have to go through a hellish spectacle, do I?
*looks at the premise of the game*
So you’re at the underwater research facility known as PATHOS-II and you’re in the 22nd century. This is where the game truly takes off. So let’s stop for a moment and go over the quick basics of gameplay.
If you played the Amnesia or the Penumbra series, you ought to have an idea on what to expect. Like with those games, SOMA has some puzzles to clear before you can make progress. However, the actual puzzle-solving is more subdued this time around.
Stuff is generally easier to find to the point where you don’t necessarily need to turn over every leaf and stone to find a single key. This game has a stronger emphasis on exploration and stealth.
In this way, it’s similar to how Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs plays. So why is it that I’m not criticizing this game for doing this?
Well, it’s because Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs promised to be a strong sequel to an already great game. However, its story was mediocre at best, its puzzles are ridiculously simple to the point of being insulting, and the game overall was too short to warrant a price tag higher than $10.
In SOMA, the puzzles can be easy but they feel more thought out and they often vary in difficulty too. With enough diligence in exploring the environments, it still feels rewarding to complete those puzzles and you get good bits of story when you move forward.
And speaking of puzzles, they often involve working computers and other machinery to do whatever you want. You also need your trusty Omnitool v2.5 with you at all times.
Which is a PDA that does just about everything, even downloading people’s consciences! Fuck yeah!
That last bit is true. I’ll get to it at some point. Did I mention this review is spoiler-y?
Speaking of which, the other major game mechanic is simple: decisions. Tough decisions.
What do I mean about that? Well…
Often, you will come across surviving humans and sentient computers kept barely alive by a techno-organic mass. The decision is usually whether you should pull the plug or not.
These decisions are optional to make and only impact some of the dialogue in the game. Oddly enough, this is quite effective as you don’t feel like you’re doing something out of an artificial reason like “collecting” or “rescuing” a limited number of a certain commodity.
Like rescuing a crying Little Sister in Bioshock to yield bigger late-game rewards.
I’m not trying to bash Bioshock, as it is still a great, fun game. But can you really bring yourself to “harvest” an innocent, little girl anyway, even when she has a zombie-like appearance? And with those better rewards from rescuing Little Sisters instead of harvesting them, it doesn’t pull at your heartstrings as much.
In SOMA though, you feel compelled to do something to help the people around you, even if you don’t get rewarded for it. Whatever choice you make, you will feel bad about it. Can you really bring yourself to kill another? Or will you let them live and pretend the meeting has never happened?
These kinds of moral dilemmas are what breathe life into SOMA’s story, which fits really well considering the story explores what it truly means to be human.
You will find these grody-looking cysts around the game. Sticking your hand in will heal you of any damage you take from enemies—which is weird because it looks like it’s going to break your arm off each time you use one—and serve as a save point.
You can also interact with dead bodies or other special objects, which allow you to hear audio recordings of various people who had worked at PATHOS-II. And thus, you can get some interesting backstory about what is going on.
And speaking of enemies, I’ll let these images speaks for themselves…
The majority of these enemies are biomechanical zombies given life by a computer known as the WAU. Not only is the enemy variety greater than that of previous games by Frictional Games, they also differ in strategy on how you avoid them. Staring at them also causes your eyesight to build up static.
For example, the Flesher enemies will react to you if you stare at them or are too close to them. This is one instance where crouching and looking at the ground will help you.
My personal favorite is the Terry Akers creature, possibly the scariest and most difficult enemy to deal with. His wails pierce at the heart and the heavy thuds of his footsteps will have you frantically thinking, “Oh shit oh shit oh shit!” Considering how much buildup the game has been giving him, he pulls through as one of the most memorable monsters provided by Frictional Games.
With all this said, this is how much of the game progresses so now let’s touch upon the story.
So coming back from what I said, Simon Jarrett was an average Canadian citizen until one day, he wakes up in a very different place. An underwater research institution consisted of many sectors.
Now I know what you’re all thinking: Bioshock. Not quite.
Bioshock takes place in a giant underwater utopia, which ironically becomes a giant underwater dystopia. Its main inhabitants are a bunch of talkative, violent humans corrupted by a powerful chemical. At its heart, Bioshock is an action game with RPG elements meant to serve as a spiritual successor to the cult classic PC game, System Shock 2.
SOMA is an adventure puzzle game, with no guns or weapons, that focuses on a different issue: if humanity alters itself extensively in order to continue self-preservation, where do we cross the line?
While meeting some odd robotic inhabitants in the game, you also come across a computer calling itself Catherine Chun, an Asian woman who copied her conscience into a cortex chip.
After their meeting, Catherine becomes the AI of Simon’s Omnitool and the two become traveling companions as they brave the dangers of PATHOS-II and the disturbing horrors waiting in the deep ocean.
Much of the story is encountering new hazards, including different monsters, and getting to new locations named after the Greek alphabet. Every now and then, you do make encounters with other people whose minds are inside cold robotic shells.
So far, I have only mentioned the basic gist of the plot but I will have the big details worked out yourself. There is already a whole lot to explain, like how and why many robots around PATHOS-II talk and behave like real-life people and why the area is infested with this fleshy growth caused by the Warden Unit (WAU).
Oh, dear god… *vomits*
The story is one big tragedy after another. Through Simon’s eyes, we keep discovering new fucked up occurrences, such as a human mind being duplicated.
The idea of a human mind getting copied and can act independently of the original persona of the mind is a scary thought. The game plays around with your expectations and you find that sacrifices have to be made in order for this journey to work. In a sense, this controversy goes hand-in-hand with the science of cloning. There are moral consequences to consider.
This is a different side to playing God. You abandon the body—or a soma, if you prefer—to live on to another. But in doing so, is it really the same life or just a duplicate of the same person? Understandably so, this is a tough idea to take in for Simon.
Simon is the everyman character, just like Philip from the Penumbra series and Daniel from Amnesia: The Dark Descent. All ordinary men trying to carry out their lives normally but somehow met a tragic fate that puts them at odds against powerful forces that they wouldn’t even dream of existing. Whatever Simon feels, we may feel the same way.
Definitely some hard lessons to learn in this game. But that is what makes it so enjoyable.
Graphics wise, there is a big attention to detail. The designs of the environments you visit look really amazing.
This is among the most picturesque games I have ever played. One of the aspects of Amnesia: The Dark Descent that I praised is that it creates the exact atmosphere that it wants to convey.
But SOMA blows it out of the water—no pun intended. It has managed to create an undersea environment that seems so alien, and mechanical hallways that seem to have come straight out of Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise.
I was mesmerized the first time you play an underwater section in the game. While you do get impressive views of an enormous underwater city like that of Bioshock, this game makes you feel like you really are exploring the depths of the ocean in a post-apocalyptic period. It’s just pure genius.
SOMA is undoubtedly a game that tugs at your heartstrings. It’s a hard game to play through; not because it’s difficult, but because you effectively witness the destruction and deconstruction of the human race. And you see the last survivors desperately clinging to life, trying to preserve what they consider their most important traits that make them human. The ultimate sacrifice is their bodies, and their minds and souls can live on through another vessel. But in making that sacrifice, they have achieved a form of immortality as punishment. And while trapped in their fantasy worlds, they are susceptible to influence by the WAU and planet Earth itself. This kind of influence can make a heavy impact on them, leading them to an eternity of pain and suffering.
I cannot stress enough on how great this game is. It’s better to experience it yourself because whatever I write here is not enough to do it justice. This is not only a milestone for Frictional Games, but for horror games in general.
And with that, I wish everyone reading here a happy Halloween and have fun. For the month of November, I’m thinking of returning back to reviewing animations so keep an eye out.
- The puzzles are simple and straightforward as long as you're diligent in exploring new areas.
- The story and characters are well written, leaving some room for ambiguity and and giving every character a balance of strengths and weaknesses to make them feel more like real human characters. There is also a ton of interesting backstory you can uncover.
- Each monster has a unique and distinctive appearance, giving a good impression on how powerful the WAU is.
- The environments look amazing, making you truly feel that you are traveling across an unusual and somewhat primal version of the ocean depths. Wandering around the different sectors of PATHOS-II feels like exploring a dark, abandoned city.
- The sound design does very well in complimenting the environment, with appropriate ambient sounds to sell the eerie atmosphere, intense music in exploring dark, abandoned areas, and excellent voice acting to convey the emotions of the characters.
- The game has a pretty slow start, truly taking off around the two-hour mark.
- Dealing with the monsters can be tedious at times, since running away and hiding from them are difficult.