SOMA asks you to step into a new horror from Frictional Games - the creators of Penumbra and Amnesia. Drawing gameplay inspiration from their previous titles, this experience thrusts you into a claustrophobic, underwater sci-fi world. But, while its themes of humanity and sanity are well explored in the fantastic told narrative, the scares falls a little flatter due to its deliberately disconnected fiction.
Connect with the claustrophobic world
From the opening moments of SOMA its lineage is clear, with it utilizing many of the tricks seen in Amnesia to root you in its engrossing world. Taking control of Simon, your main way to interact with the world is to grab elements in the environment – from tools to sealed airlock doors. You can then use the mouse or right-stick to pull, drag, or shove them in the desired direction. Combined with stealth-centric first-person controls, this tiny trick connects you with Simon in a way that proves quite apt as the game unravels.
But while it controls similarly to Amnesia, it is clear Frictional Games’s focus in SOMA has been its storytelling, and here it excels. Simon has a far better idea of who he is than the characters in the company’s previous titles. The world is also more dense and alive with believable details than the generic - but well realized - Lovecraftian-gothic style of their previous games.
This story is a mix of mystery and horror as, during a brain scan in the present day, Simon is transported to a confined-futuristic facility deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean. If that isn’t bad enough, all is not well in the deserted base which is dark and filled with of organic machinery.
It is a setting that gives Frictional Games more room to experiment and explore. During the course of its tale the action regularly switches between the restrictive interior and watery exterior of various structures altering the pace of play and the threats you must face.
A story that will drive you through the horror
During your journey through the world, you also begin to question Simon's existence. Is he really there, is Simon Simon, and what does it mean to be human? Reality continuously shifts around you to match your needs, including one occasion when you grow scuba gear on demand. This all provides you with clues that something is defiantly wrong, but the details are only filled in as you explore and discover.
Enemies also play on this uncertainty. A variety of lumbering robots and corrupted creatures cross the line between living and dead in this watery cemetery. As in the developer’s earlier titles, you have no way to defend yourself from these foes, making flight or hiding your only recourse.
Unfortunately, the disconnected nature of Simon's existence - and the concrete cybernetic nature of his foes - mean that the scares lack impact when compared to the indefinable terrors of Amnesia. While they undoubtedly remain unnerving, the semi-mechanical foes are more grounded and so less haunting. At some point this – combined with your own growing beliefs about what Simon has become - makes them little more than an inconvenience, an obstacle on your way to the next step in the fantastic story.
To further relieve SOMA’s tension, the tech filled setting enables some companionship. Remote calls, AIs, ghosts in machines, all of these provide something for you to connect with - further breaking the tension. This isn't a bad thing though, with these characters helping to evolve the complex and involving plot - propelling you forward even when the damp claustrophobia becomes oppressive.