Within the past couple of days, I had the pleasure of receiving a copy of SOMA to review and I can honestly say this: as a huge fan of the horror game genre and an avid horror game player, SOMA is one of the best horror games ever made. Frictional Games, the developers of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, has truly created a marvelous game that struck me with its impressive visuals and thought-provoking ideas while, at the same time, making me dread going into the next area out of fear of what was to come.
The horror genre sorely needed a quality release to fill the gap that was left after hit series such as Dead Space, Silent Hill and F.E.A.R. fell off and lost their popularity. We almost saw a full reboot of the genre with Silent Hills, but hopes were crushed shortly after its announcement when the project was cancelled and just like that, the horror genre was doomed to fall into obscurity once again.
Or so I thought, until I started playing SOMA. Frictional Games mastered techniques such as tension-building and instilling fear when they made Amnesia and they were somehow able to improve upon their skills in SOMA to create an experience most exhilarating and horrifying. I will go by a simple scoring system to let you guys know how I felt about each core aspect of the game, and the effect it had on me.
The game looks beautiful and wholly unique, from top to bottom. The environment is one I haven't seen and one that I had trouble relating to any other game. Even in games like Bioshock where your character also has underwater sequences, I could not draw any parallels between the two games. SOMA was able to demonstrate the unrivaled beauty of the ocean, while also capturing its eerie vastness and feelings of solitude. Everything I interacted with in-game had careful amounts of detail added to it, and by just looking at everything in the game, it gave me a sense that this was just a top-quality game. There must have been an excruciating amount of thought put into how each scene would look, as every new place I went to looked and felt entirely different from the previous area. I would have expected to see similar assets and environments but each time I explored a new area, it was actually an entirely new area.
My only complaints that I had about the graphics are very minor. In some occasional instances, my frame rate would suffer huge drops despite not having had any previous issues throughout the game. The zeppelin/barge was a very tough part for my computer to handle, as well as a few areas in Theta. Those were really the only times when I suffered FPS problems, but the zeppelin part was a pretty cool part and I felt like I didn't get the full experience with my computer lagging.
All in all, the visuals were absolutely stunning and I am amazed that Frictional Games put so much effort into them.
SOMA just sounds amazing at every point in the game. In-game, I found that it leaned more on the side of quietness and stillness, which makes sense given the setting and atmosphere. I found that it was more important to listen to the monsters or anything in my environment that could be useful or harmful to me, so the lack of music was definitely a good thing. Every sound in the game had me feeling like I had to turn around or take cover. All of the low, rumbling sounds you'd expect to hear in an underwater structure are enough to make you flinch every time you hear them.
As I said before, Frictional Games mastered tension for this game and their sounds are what really got to me. Throughout my playthrough, there were many times where I had to rely solely on my ears to figure out where the monsters were, as any light that I could use to see them could be used against myself. It was very interesting to see how it all tied together, since listening to the monsters was a necessity but the sounds they made were horrifying. There is no way for me to describe the sounds that some of the monsters made (especially the ones in Theta) but the way it was done was incredible.
No complaints about the controls at all. The options were flexible and offered me with many customization options. The controls in-game felt smooth, clean and not clunky or bulky at all. Movement was responsive and fluid, as well as the motion when looking around with the mouse.
Frictional Games' signature object interaction makes a return and is great fun. Manipulating items and maneuvering them around was easy and didn't take more than a few seconds to get it all down. Interacting with scenery does not feel like a chore and is usually worth it.
The plot of this game is surprisingly well thought-out, and is thought-provoking if you decide to immerse yourself in it. Some of the concepts are quite interesting and fit very well with the game overall. Some of the questions I was asked or was found asking myself were:
"What really is humanity?"
"Does a human mind or a human body make us human?"
"Would we view sentient machines as equals, rivals, or lesser creatures?"
The game also gives optional choices at certain points to end the lives of some of the "machines" that I came across. It was enlightening to see the effect my own moral compass had on the game in these situations.
I think the story elements and the plot itself is perfect for this game. It wasn't overdone, and there was a solid mix of clarity and subtlety that made the game easy to understand but also made me crave to explore and uncover everything.
Atmosphere, Tension & Fear
I have to admit that it's been a long time since I've played a game that made me feel so tense and unsure of what I was doing. The monster design was so unique, with mechanics that were familiar and adaptable to but still unexpected. With each monster encounter, I was forced to make split-second reactions and I had to assess the threats of the monster and how to avoid them.
The first monster encountered is what you would expect: it was able to see and hear me. In this encounter, I had to turn off a valve that was producing steam blocking a stairwell and when the valve was switched off, the pressure caused a loud noise and attracted the monster to my location. I hid on top of a broken walkway where I was positive that the monster wouldn't find me, and as I had thought, the monster didn't look my way and it turned to keep patrolling. As it continued to survey the area, it actually ended up spotting me as it was looking around and it went into a full sprint making its mechanical but alien-like sounds. I was forced to nearly kill myself by jumping off the walkway and limping up the staircase to the next area. With the monster following close behind, I pulled a lever that opened a hatch, and past the hatch was another lever on the other side to close it. The monster would have killed me had I closed the hatch a second later, and this is no exaggeration. In every single encounter so far that I have seen, death is so close and there is no way around it, creating a true feeling of tension and fear that is inescapable.
My one complaint about the monsters is that they sometimes follow paths, making them predictable. Some might prefer this as it gives a chance to formulate a strategy and plan out their actions, but I didn't feel that a patrol path fit some of the monsters that follow one. I would have preferred a completely random A.I. that would sometimes wander into the areas that I thought were safe. That would have removed any semblance of safety and comfort that I felt I had and would have made it perfect.
I would wholeheartedly recommend this game to horror fans and especially to those who don't like horror games. SOMA will scare the living daylights out of you, whether you let it or not. I am genuinely glad that Frictional Games decided to make this since they really pulled out all the stops for this. Amnesia was an awesome game, but they really made a fantastic horror game with SOMA. I will be following Frictional Games from now on to see what other works they come out with in the future, because if it's anything like SOMA, I will be playing it.
SOMA is available on Steam for $29.99 if you'd like to try it out for yourself. Just make sure your lights are off, your headphones are on and you've got a change of pants.