Soma is a first-person horror adventure game developed by Frictional Games of Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent fame. Built in the third iteration of their proprietary HPL Engine, Soma plays similarly to Frictional's prior efforts but still manages to feel decidedly new and fresh. Should you allow Frictional Games to scan your brain for posterity?
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away”
In Soma's opening scene, a phone call awakens Simon from his terrible nightmare. In it Simon relives the fatal car crash he endured with his girlfriend; the one severely injuring him and killing her. The lingering effects of the collision render concentration difficult and gives Simon recurring headaches, and doctors postulate he has mere months to live. In an effort to extend his lifespan, Simon has volunteered for a research project hoping to personalize treatment by scanning a patient's brain and exposing a simulated version of it to various stimuli. The entirety of Soma's opening cleverly teaches the nuances of the mechanics without ever explicitly feeling like a tutorial. It also characterizes Simon as a sympathetic character and alludes to Soma's overarching theme. After the brain scan, Simon comes to his senses in a strange and unfamiliar place.
Soma's story takes place one hundred years in the future inside of Pathos-II, an underwater research facility located on the ocean floor. As Simon explores the station, he learns of a cataclysmic event culminating in the apparent extinction of humanity. The only signs of life appear to be the remnants of Pathos-II robots, who seems strangely attracted to the oily substance leaking through the ceiling. Over the course of the game, Simon unravels the mysteries of Pathos-II, the fate of the earth, and his own existence.
Considering Soma's story is of such a high regard, I will refrain from divulging specifics--it's one you should experience for yourself. However, illuminating how Soma tells its story may give you an idea of what to expect. The brunt of the backstory is told through notes scattered through Pathos-II, by data mining machinery, and found on various computers. Frictional has penned an interesting backstory that expertly frames Simon's narrative and ultimately elevates it. Instead of merely providing the player with the backstory at set intervals, it is offered as a reward for exploring Pathos-II. In addition to the explicitly told portions, Soma features some remarkable implicit storytelling with its visual design--the environments have a story to tell. Simon's narrative is mainly provided piecemeal to the player after completing certain objectives, but diligent exploration might reveal information that would otherwise remain unknown.
Exploration, Puzzle-Solving, and Stealth
Soma's gameplay consists of three distinct entities--exploration, puzzle-solving, and stealth--working in unison. Dutifully exploring every nook and cranny of Pathos-II is required to fully enjoy Soma's story. Frictional's bold decision of offering the backstory as a reward for exploration turned out to be a good one due to the sheer quality of the writing and supreme exploration-based gameplay. By virtue of the level design, players will stumble upon the story as they navigate through the underwater facility. In addition to rewarding the player, the exploration portion of the gameplay manifests itself through several navigational puzzles. Frictional likes to present a larger hub to explore, where only a minority of its locations are required to advance. Figuring out where to go--and sometimes how to get there--is a prominent part of the gameplay. Although confusing at times, Simon's unfamiliarity with his surroundings heightens immersion.
Soma's puzzles are for the most part nicely rooted in the narrative. In addition to the aforementioned navigational ones, Soma requires Simon to solve physics- and logical puzzles of a varying degree of complexity. The physics puzzles aren't as plentiful, and for the most part revolves around Simon manipulating objects in the world to achieve the desired effect--for instance powering a computer. The majority of Soma's puzzles are logical ones, and most of them actively reinforces--and informs you of--the overarching story. In a particularly enjoyable puzzle, Simon must create an agreeable simulation to trick a computer program into revealing vital information. Not only are the puzzles extremely satisfying to solve, but they also provide valuable insight into the world and is a prominent part of the storytelling.
Like in Frictional's critically acclaimed Amnesia, Simon is completely helpless in direct confrontations and instead has to rely solely on his wit to evade and sneak past monsters. Soma actively discourages even looking at the monsters stalking Pathos-II, as doing so terrifies Simon to the point of insanity. The screen flickers and the soundtrack become distorted until all you hear in the blurry mess is Simon's rapidly thumping heartbeat. It's incredibly effective, to the point where Soma becomes exceedingly tense each time a monster makes its presence known. Light and sound plays a vital role in the stealth gameplay as the monsters react to any noise Simon inevitably makes and the light from his torch. The only viable strategy is crouching down, turning off the flashlight, and sneaking through the pitch black Pathos-II. Especially the sound is extremely important in the gameplay. Opening a door will emit enough noise to alert the monster of your whereabouts, and (unintentionally) knocking over something in the environment will as well. Stealth gameplay has never been realized to this extent in a first-person horror game before, and it demands planning, patience, and composure of the player.
Horrifying Beauty At The Bottom Of The Ocean
The retro sci-fi aesthetics of Pathos-II feature an incredible attention to detail on par with--at times surpassing--even Alien: Isolation. The juxtaposition of the neat--almost sterile--facility in its original state with the worn-down hellscape it has become makes the environments simultaneously beautiful and absolutely dreadful. As you progress deeper into the underwater station, it becomes increasingly warped, inhuman, and otherworldly--expertly mirroring the narrative. In addition to the spectacular interior design, Frictional manages to anthropomorphize machinery so convincingly it's impossible not to empathize with their plight.
Soma's sound design is among the best I've ever experienced, and the soundtrack does an outstanding job of complimenting the action; while the ambient sounds immerse you in Frictional's world. In particular, the sound of machinery, computers booting up, and the subhuman screeches of monsters elevate Soma's presentation into something truly special. The voice actors deliver believable performances as well, with Simon in particular, coming off as a sympathetic and likeable individual. The overall fantastic audio/visual of Soma gives rise to an oppressive atmosphere that overpowers you. It simultaneously draws you in and makes you feel like an unwelcome guest--someone who does not belong.
Morality In Soma
Soma demands you to make some exceedingly difficult decisions, where none of them have an obvious right answer--mirroring reality. Thus, Soma's morality system is exceptionally effective and succeeds in eliciting emotions--actively making you feel bad--in a way that speaks volumes to the extraordinary quality of Soma's writing and visual design. There are few examples--in any medium--I can think of where I've felt so strongly about the fate of a character I've only encountered once, and who isn't even human. In other words, Soma's theme is perfectly realized, and the questions it asks about what constitutes reality are poignant and thought-provoking, mainly due to how cleverly Frictional poses them. They are never preachy; Frictional never claims to know better, or even the answer; they simply beckon you to ponder them on your own, and question your actions inside Pathos-II. Because of this, Soma is not an easy and approachable experience, it will beat you down and force you to examine yourself.
As a first-person horror game, Soma isn't as overtly scary as Amnesia. It certainly is creepy, tense, and atmospheric, but it won't go out of its way to frighten you--instead it is content with making you feel uncomfortable. The subject-matter is definitely not for the faint-of-heart, navigation can be confusing, and you spend long stretches of time simply exploring. Therefore, Soma isn't for everybody. But if you enjoy a complex narrative that respects your intelligence, and exploring a richly detailed world filled with logical puzzles; I wholeheartedly recommend Soma.
I reviewed a personal copy of Soma bought through Steam.