SOMA PC Review
The 2010 release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent was the game that put Frictional Games’ name on the quivering lips of PC players around the world who would stream their high-pitched screams of terror (and joy) over the developer’s critically acclaimed horror game. Despite also releasing the solid Penumbra trilogy just a couple of years prior, Amnesia was their magnum opus of terror, maintaining its infamy well past the divisive follow-up Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (which Frictional published, but was not directly involved).
The last five years weren’t entirely wasted, however, as the developer had been using that time to create their true horror follow-up, SOMA. Taking a break from their HP Lovecraft-inspired backdrops, SOMA jumps several lightyears ahead with a decidedly sci-fi locale and concept, involving a seemingly normal person plucked out of his world and dropped into a maze of dark corridors filled synthetic terrors roaming in the shadows. But does this ambitious successor make up for handing off the development of Amnesia’s official sequel?
Like with all good horror backdrops, SOMA starts off with its protagonist living his day-to-day dealings with normalcy, from microwaving frozen meals to taking the subway to work. Unlike most healthy citizens, main character Simon Jarrett is suffering from cranial bleeding due to a recent accident that claimed the life of his friend Ashley, and will soon finish the job with Simon as his condition worsens. With nothing to lose, he agrees to partake in an experimental brain scan. The scan is a rousing success that miraculously heals his damaged brain…actually, just kidding, it goes horribly wrong; Simon awakes inside PATHOS-2, a strange underwater facility filled with seemingly futuristic technology (and, curiously enough, computers that would look somewhat outdated in our modern times). He soon learns that a great calamity has claimed the lives of nearly every human on the planet, with the last few survivors building a space ark known as…ProjectARK, which houses the uploaded memories and personalities of everyone who volunteered. With the help of a woman named Catherine, the two must navigate the dilapidated remains of PATHOS-2 while avoiding the deadly horrors that science has wrought.
Previous stories by Frictional Games tend to follow a silent protagonist who would come across journals and occasional characters who spoke in Ye Olde English. SOMA takes a more grounded approach by having Simon remark about the craziness surrounding him while also getting into discussions about morality as it surrounds the Isaac Asimov debate of human life versus AI life. The mystery and moral dilemmas continue throughout the story in a smart and often tense fashion, while the monster variety changes along with the location. On the outset, PATHOS-2 looks like the USG Ishimura (Dead Space) collided with the underwater city of Rapture (Bioshock), but a variety of interactive objects and creepy monster designs sets it apart from its predecessors.
Speaking of which, SOMA follows in the footsteps of Penumbra and Amnesia in featuring monster encounters with no way to fight back; players must run and/or hide from the very suspicion of enemy activity, but must also figure out the various patterns that each enemy exhibits; some creatures will give chase the moment it lays eyes on you, while others can cause damage just by directly making eye contact. The puzzle aspect of these confrontations fit in nicely with the more literal puzzle aspects of the game. Once again following tradition with Frictional’s previous works, players will have to inspect a lot of computers, turning on various power supplies and finding the required keycards in order to proceed. The puzzles are smart and often follow a specific logic that revolve a lot around computer maintenance 101 (such as deleting space from a storage disk to fit in the necessary data, or even resetting a router at one point), but the real problem is one that has been a staple of Frictional’s games since its Penumbra days: dark, maze-like hallways where players could potentially get lost in. SOMA’s pacing takes a hit during these moments, especially when the solution is painfully staring in front of you, obscured by dark lighting and not having the cursor aligned just right with the object you need to interact with.
The other problem is also shared with the previous games, and that is the developer’s engine; while SOMA mostly performs well and looks especially great (minus the Half-Life 2 quality of the few human characters you interact with), the framerate can hitch up depending on your configurations (in this reviewer’s case, turning off AA has helped with all of their titles), while the initial load time after boot up can last at least five minutes. Borrowing a divisive mechanic from A Machine for Pigs, SOMA features both respawning and Game Overs; should an enemy make contact with players, they will black out for a second and regain consciousness at the last spot they were attacked. While this enables players to resume their exploring, it also leaves them dazed and impaired, resulting in less responsive controls and a warped perspective. This “one more time” feature may help avoid some backtracking, but the persistently wonky controls (until you manage to find a health regenerating pod, which can run out after one use) tends to make dying and continuing a more welcome, if traditional, alternative.
In the end, SOMA does not quite share the scare factor of Amnesia, but it does exceed it from a storytelling standpoint, as well as nailing that same attention to detail that creates a tense atmosphere filled with both beauty and horror. A definite purchase for the Halloween season.