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SOMA (PlayStation 4) artwork

SOMA (PlayStation 4) review


"Finding the monster within the machine."


This is going to be one of those reviews, Iím afraid. One of those ones where I hint at grandeur but pull back from the definitive while using fear of spoilers like a get out of jail free card. Thatís just the nature of SOMA, I fear; if I start trying to explain more or less anything, then Iím going to have to reveal a little bit more to shed some context. And, at that point, I might as well spill it all and tell you that the butler did it.

Of course, in this instance, the butler is entirely innocent. It was probably one of those homicidal robots in this case. If not them, then certainly one of those lumbering monsters that lurk around the place. One thing I canít Ė and wonít Ė hide is that SOMA is plainly the work of Frictional, the warped minds behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Not Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I hasten to add: that was slapped together by Dear Esther developers, The Chinese Room. No, no, no Ė weíre talking about the good one, the Amnesia that made hiding in cupboards from evils you couldnít even see the new face of fear. SOMA shares a lot in common, but also boasts a lot of differences.

We should talk about the sea. Avoiding comparisons to the first couple of Bioshocks is going to prove impossible; SOMA takes place in an underwater environment, effortlessly promoting a sense of isolation and disconnect. Strolling past windows displaying endless stretches of sea hammer home the fact that youíre on your own with whatís left within the stations, which rarely has your back. Thereís nowhere to run, no incoming help to look towards. On the other hand, at times, the aquatic surroundings are purposefully lovely and almost soothing. Thereís stretches where youíre not assaulted by the horrific and the insane where a stroll around SOMA is nearly inviting. Itís a trap; of course it is.



Protagonist, Simon, doesnít have a lot going for him. Clueless, but without travelling the tired amnesiac road and broken in ways heíll begrudgingly come to understand. Defenceless for the most part; much like in Amnesia and Penumbra, his vulnerability acts as a strong catalyst for you to invest in fear and panic. There are not a lot of places to hide and miles of seabed arenít often conductive with escape, so instead, heís forced to tiptoe through the horror knowing the near inevitability of a messy death is just a blind corner away. His companion of sorts, Catherine, provides some of the most believable dialogue ever delivered between two characters trapped in a nightmarish dervish, but is still hardly a comfort. There are moments between the two that can lighten the mood; shades of morality and philosophy and the welcome mundane grind of everyday life. These are also traps. Of course they are, and of course you already know this. But youíll wilfully fall for them regardless just to try and suck at the pinpricks of light among the dark.

SOMA succeeds at being scary. Not jump-scare scary (though it holds no quarrel about lobbing those at you when you least expect it) but manages to be one of those rare horror titles that seeps into your brain and genuinely disturbs you. While you could argue (and I will; itís what I do) that it doesnít creep you out to the same chilling highs that Amnesia does, it nails a lot of the aspects that game fell short of. Production values have been ramped up to ensure your underwater home is suitably damp and unwelcoming, while the awkward puzzles are certainly less awkward. Some of them even make sense beyond the usual ďFind X to open doorĒ, but SOMA retains the feel of a horrific adventure game that demands you understand your surroundings to advance. And not get caught. Thatís important, too.



Itís amazing, then, that SOMA is still able to pull so effectively at your heartstrings. Some quests have you needing to find parts that are readily available from nearby machines, but while you harvest these items, you have to listen to the robot youíre deconstructing. They might drip innocence, highlighting the heavy moral greys in which you walk as you effectively murder them, or they might just plead for their lives. It creates a new feeling of discomfort that sits awkwardly with the more macabre offerings you would more expect from Frictional. Sometimes you donít have a choice, but what happens when you do? In a lot of laudable ways, SOMA trades in trying to convince you thereís something in the shadows that wants to kill you and instead forces you ask questions you might not be comfortable asking. It forces you evaluate how much stock you put into humanity, or, ultimately, how you truly define what it is. Itís such a broad and integral question that no two peopleís answers are ever likely to be exactly the same, meaning thereís no real chance for two different people to experience SOMAís unfolding in the same way.

It will turn things around on you; twist your stomach up in ways you didnít expect. Thereís a real sense of inquisitive morality running roughshod through the entire undertaking, asking not only how you might fare in the face of unspeakable horror, but also shyly wondering what type of person it might force you to become.

4/5

EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (October 13, 2015)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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Suskie posted October 13, 2015:

Really terrific job avoiding spoilers here. I was careful not to reveal anything that isn't established fairly early on, but I do think SOMA benefits from the player going in as cold as possible. But I do have the advantage in one area:

Avoiding comparisons to the first couple of Bioshocks is going to prove impossible

HA! Got you there!

It was really hard for me not to mention BioShock. I avoided it because the games are really nothing alike, but I kept thinking throughout that PATHOS-II was doing what I'd always wished Rapture had done. I never really felt that BioShock made the most out of being set underwater; all said and done, Rapture could have been in any isolated location, and I don't think the first game even had any playable underwater segments. Whereas SOMA being set at the bottom of the ocean plays hugely into its themes, as we both discussed.

Anyway, great job with this. Not at all a repeat of mine, if that's what you were worried about!
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Masters posted October 14, 2015:

Nice work, Gary. I think I'll pick this game up.

If you can say so without spoiling the game, what 'weaknesses' did you see? I am led to wonder why it doesn't get the 5-star treatment.

Also, how does it compare to Alien: Isolation (assuming you've played that game)? It kind of looks similar on the face of things.
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EmP posted October 14, 2015:

Suskie: It's not a repeat because I rewrote more than I kept! But I think it's worth it to have two slightly different takes on SOMA.

I took out and put back in that Bioshock reference a few times because, on one hand, you're right that the game share little but a setting they both handle differently. On the other hand, some of the early stages might as well have been lifted from 'Shock 1 (like the glass corridor I used as a screen). Mainly though - and I'm wrecking it by dropping it in the comments section below the review, I found I was okay in being a little misleading so that people will still be surprised by SOMA. Sounds dumb now that this thought has left my head. Perhaps I'll revise.

Marc: I felt there was sometimes a heavy disconnect between the horror aspects of the game and the philosophical thrust it wanted to drive harder the further into the game you got. Most of the time this wasn't the case; the two aspects married up very well but sometimes the scares felt obligatory and the wrapping up of that particular threat, I felt, was handled very clumsily. Also, the protagonist is Canadian. Who wants to play as a Canadian? Keeps harping on about Toronto. Urgh.
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Suskie posted October 16, 2015:

Masters, I think SOMA is very much cut from the same cloth as Alien: Isolation (which in turn was cut from the same cloth as the developers' last game, Amnesia). You're only ever faced against one enemy at a time and you have no defense against them other than just avoiding them completely. There's even one sequence in the game where I'm pretty sure the monster of the moment was using vents in the ceiling to get around, so yeah, it's very much in the same category.

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