Share
submit to reddit
Pin it
Soma

Soma - boxart

In a Nutshell

  • Gameplay: 75
    Hide and seek with monsters is a very unfulfilling experience, but is at least less punitive than in similar games. Puzzle designs are organic and varied.

  • Visuals: 89
    Some repetitive looking corridors are compensated by gorgeous seafloor environments. Entire game feels alive and lived-in.

  • Audio: 86
    Voice acting is mostly solid with occasional flat delivery. Sound design is great.

  • Value: 90
    Some of the plot threads are a bit frayed, but the overall excellent sci-fi story carries the mediocre gameplay on its shoulders.

  • Existential horror*: 95
    Might have you lying awake at night wondering if the you that wakes up will be the same you that went to sleep.

  • Overall Score: 87 / 100

  • * denotes wild-card score category
Developer(s):
Frictional Games
Platforms:
PC (Steam),
Linux, Mac OS, PS4
ESRB rating:Mature for
Blood, Violence,
Nudity, Strong Language
Genre(s):
science fiction survival horror
Player(s):
single-playe
Official site:
somagame.com

Now that I've gotten through the gauntlet of massive AAA releases like Metal Gear Solid V and Dark Souls III, I wanted to take some time to clear out some smaller games that have been collecting dust in my Steam library before diving into any other massive, time-sucking games. One of my highest priorities was the Indie sci-fi horror title Soma, developed by Frictional Games - the same company that made Amnesia: the Dark Descent. I had heard pretty good things about this game, and I liked Dark Descent, so I was eager to finally have a chance to dive into this one.

Learning from failures and forgetting successes

Soma show signs of learning from the weaknesses of both The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs (which was actually developed by a third party), even though it still doesn't necessarily nail the mechanics this time either. It's a far better experience than Machine for Pigs, and shows the level of quality that helped make Dark Descent such a hit. The most notable improvements from Machine for Pigs is in the depth of gameplay and monster encounters; and the most notable improvements from Dark Descent are in puzzle design and narrative.

Second chances

Soma - monster
Monsters sometimes appear in where you get important story bits to incentivize you to not just walk away.

Monster encounters do still feel very un-threatening for the first half of the game. The first few monster encounters even seemed scripted to catch the player. This was possibly done in order to tutorialize the game's healing mechanic, but it also serves to desensitize the player to the monster and the threat of death right out of the gate. Unlike The Dark Descent, you don't start out terrified and cowering in fear from a mysterious and ominous enemy that can kill you in a heartbeat, and then gradually grow desensitized to it as it kills you and you realize that the consequences of death are pretty minor. Instead, you're taught right from the start that dying is virtually consequence-free, and that it isn't really worth the time and effort to try to avoid the monster by sneaking around, or to try to hide from it. The monster's appearance is never even surprising either. There's a screen-tearing effect and static noises to indicate that the monster is near, even if you can't see him. It's the same kind of effect that Slenderman played with. So even while you're walking around, you never feel the need to peek around corners or glance over your shoulder to make sure nothing's stalking you. This kills any potential for horror that the game might have been able to establish.

But there are some subtle improvements from Dark Descent. In that game, being caught by the monster usually meant instant-death. Now, you can actually survive one hit from the monster. You fall unconscious, and then wake up with your vision all blurry and movement slowed. It's an effect similar to the sanity effect from Dark Descent, and it does make healing feel more relevant, and draws the monster encounters out a bit longer. You don't just die and restart from the beginning; you instead get knocked out and then continue from the middle of the encounter - often halfway to your eventual destination. In the second half of the game, there will also be sections in which a monster will pursue you across multiple rooms, which means you don't just sneak past it and forget about it like you would in Machine for Pigs. Having that extra chance to continue, and evading the monster across a larger play area, reduces the tedious, trial-and-error quality of insta-kill monster encounters that was a big problem in the previous Amnesia games and in games like Alien: Isolation.

Soma - hiding from monster
The feeling of being in a cat-and-mouse pursuit is very rare, and it's easy to get trapped in dead ends.

That extra leeway is welcome, but the problem is that monster encounters still don't feel very mechanically interesting. There aren't any closets to hide in, so running and hiding isn't really an option. Doors are opened and closed with buttons, so you can't hide in a room and peak out a crack in the door. There are some doors that slide open, so you can peak between a crack in that door. Even this is barely useful, as the hallways and rooms are laid out so that you'll only have a view of the hallway wall five feet away. You can also easily get trapped in dead ends with absolutely no recourse if the monster pursues you. You can throw items to try to distract the monster, but it's not very useful since you're often stuck in closed, confined corridors. Much like in Machine for Pigs, you can mostly evade the monster by crouch-walking past when its back is turned. Even if you do come face-to-face with a monster, the correct response isn't to run away in a panic and hide, peeking out every so often with your finger hovering over the "heal" button. No, in this game, if you see a monster while walking around, you just turn around and walk in the other direction and hope you aren't followed into a dead end. And the monster will occasionally trap you in dead ends that force you to have to just let it kill you because you can't actually hide, and it blocks the only route of escape.

There's rarely any sense of being stalked or hunted - the levels simply aren't designed for it. By halfway through the game, I actually wonder whether the game may have been better off without any monsters or actual threats. I don't think it would, since the monsters are part of a plot thread that is the source of most of the game's mystery and intrigue, and without them, I don't think the storyline about scanning human minds would hold up as well for the entire duration of the game. So despite some instances of learning from its past failure, Soma drops the ball when it comes to the things that Dark Descent (and by extension Alien: Isolation) did well.

More organic sci-fi puzzles

The bigger improvement from previous Amnesia games is the puzzle design. The puzzles feel more natural in the environments than they did in Dark Descent, and they're more involved than in Machine for Pigs. You still don't have a proper inventory, puzzle items are just temporarily collected and then automatically used on the appropriate puzzle, but you're also usually required to do something once you bring the appropriate puzzle item to the puzzle. These puzzles also fit naturally into the sci-fi setting. An item-fetch puzzle might also require you to download files from a specific computer before taking the fetched memory chip to the required destination. There's another puzzle midway through the game that requires you to add and remove files from a computerized simulation so that you have all the dependencies required to run the simulation, but without exceeding the computer's active memory capacity.

Puzzles feel more involved and organic within the sci-fi setting.

The horrors of transhumanism

Fortunately, the narrative that the game tells is thoroughly thought-provoking and expertly-crafted. This narrative is the thing that actually elevates Soma up above Amnesia: the Dark Descent. This narrative explores the mind-body problem in a similar manner to The Swapper, but this time, with a more transhumanist slant. The actual gameplay doesn't incorporate the theme as well as The Swapper does, but the story that is told is still very thought-provoking and offers an interesting dialogue on the concepts of the mind-body problem as they relate to transhumanism. While The Swapper used the mind-body problem as the centerpiece of its core mechanic that you were constantly engaged with, Soma focuses on exploring corridors and evading monsters as its core mechanic, with a thematic transhumanist puzzle or set piece showing up at regular intervals to make you stop and think. It works just fine, but it never reaches the level of ludonarrative harmony that The Swapper excels at.

Transhumanism (if you aren't familiar with it) is the philosophy of improving the human condition and human biology through technology. This can vary from the use of computerized implants to improve human cognitive functions or health, to the more radical ideas of implanting human minds into computers or android bodies. Soma primarily deals with the later, but the former is also significant in the story as well. It starts with the supposition that human minds can be downloaded into computers, but then asks the deeper questions of "Would that work?", "Would the result still be 'human'?", and - most importantly - "Can the 'you' that is downloaded actually be the same 'you' as before?".

Soma - robot Carl
Aw, it thinks it's people! How cute.
... wait a minute ...

The major twist of the game is actually revealed pretty early, and it barely really qualifies as a twist. This is a great design though, since it frees up the game from having to try to skirt around an issue in order to build-up to some dramatic late-game twist. Instead, the game is free to start asking it's heady questions within an hour of starting up the game, which gives the game the time and opportunity to give those questions and discussions the focus and directness that they deserve (and - for some players - require).

For anybody who's paying attention to the narrative and actually thinking about the things that you're asked to do in this game, the existential horror of your actions and the events of the game should be screwing with your mind enough that the game doesn't need to throw in deadly monsters. I felt genuinely sad when I had to hurt or kill some of the robots, and the game gives the player some subtle choices as extensions of certain key puzzles that made me pause and think about the repercussions and morality of what I was doing. After all, within the context of the game, all these robots and A.I.s pass the Turing Test. All the moral choices that you face are presented as fuzzy "lesser of two evils" options rather than the "paragon or renegade" choices that most other games (including heady games like Fallout) throw at the player.

The game even makes some of these choices for you early in the game (when you don't necessarily comprehend the weight of your actions) by forcing you to make one choice over the other in order to proceed. This just makes the open-ended choices later on feel so much heavier (after the game has explained the sinister nature of the character's previous choices), and they made me stop dead in my tracks and contemplate the weight of what I'm deciding to do. They aren't utilitarian, there's no impression that one path or the other might result in a ludic reward or alternate ending, and even if I did think a choice might affect the game's ending, I was genuinely oblivious as to how. I was left considering what I thought would be the right thing to do based on my own understanding of the subject matter that the game was presenting me with, and that was a genuinely hard decision to make. I sat for a minute or two at some of these choices, moving the mouse cursor over each of the option buttons, as I debated in my head which one was the better choice. And even the word "better" seemed like the wrong term: better for who?

Soma - Catherine's real self
And now we get to the key metaphysical conundrum of transhumanism: are you still you?

This game even managed to blow my own preconceived notions of the mind-body problem of transhumanism out the window by providing a possible reconciliation between the conflict of identity, stream of consciousness, and the five-minute hypothesis. This explanation made me second-guess what would have been my natural inclination towards these sorts of metaphysical puzzles.

If Philip K. Dick had been a game designer

Visuals and audio are also mostly exceptional. There's some really good lighting, texture work, and exemplary use of decorations and clutter. There were even a few moments in the underwater sections where I just stopped and admired the view of fish swimming around and seaweed waving in the current - it could've been a very nice screensaver. Video monitors could look better, but that's about the only goof in this game's visual design. The immersive visuals are accompanied by a variety of immersive sound effects. Voice acting is fine, and I like the Joe Everyman quality of the protagonist voice actor (He sometimes sounded so much like James Sunderland that I had to check the credits to make sure it wasn't Guy Cihi doing to the voice work). Some lines of dialogue are delivered a little flat, and a couple conversations felt unnatural given what was happening on screen, but these incidents were forgivable and far between. This game has very solid production value to go along with its exceptional sci-fi narrative.

Both A Machine for Pigs and Soma rely very little on the horror of their minute-to-minute gameplay. Instead, they carry themselves on their powerful, existentially-terrifying narratives. The science fiction concepts of Soma are good - really, really good! Like, almost Philip K. Dick good! But as good as those narratives are, both games feel underwhelming as games when compared to The Dark Descent or The Swapper, but Soma far exceeds Machine for Pigs. If you're looking for a scary-tense survival horror game, you might want to look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a deep, cerebral science fiction story that will spin your head with metaphysical possibilities, then Soma is definitely a game for you - a game that you'll enjoy even more than Dark Descent.

Other Game Reviews I've Published

Alan WakeAlan WakeAlien: IsolationAlien: Isolation
Amnesia: a Machine for PigsAmnesia: a Machine for PigsAmnesia: the Dark DescentAmnesia: the Dark Descent
Among the SleepAmong the SleepAssassin's Creed IIIAssassin's Creed III
Assassin's Creed IV: Black FlagAssassin's Creed IV: Black FlagBack to the Future Episode OneBack to the Future Episode One
Backbreaker FootballBackbreaker FootballBanishedBanished
Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham CityBloodborneBloodborne
Bloodborne: the Old HuntersBloodborne: the Old HuntersCatherineCatherine
Cities SkylinesCities SkylinesCities Skylines: After DarkCities Skylines: After Dark
Cities Skylines: SnowfallCities Skylines: SnowfallCities: Skylines: Match Day & ver. 1.4Cities: Skylines: Match Day & ver. 1.4
CitiesXL & Cities XXLCitiesXL & Cities XXLDark SoulsDark Souls
Dark Souls Artorias of the Abyss DLCDark Souls Artorias of the Abyss DLCDark Souls IIDark Souls II
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First SinDark Souls II: Scholar of the First SinDark Souls IIIDark Souls III
Dark Souls III: Ashes of AriandelDark Souls III: Ashes of AriandelDead Space 2Dead Space 2
Demon's SoulsDemon's SoulsDmC (Devil May Cry)DmC (Devil May Cry)
DreadOutDreadOutF.T.L. (Faster Than Light)F.T.L. (Faster Than Light)
Fallout 4Fallout 4Fallout ShelterFallout Shelter
Final Fantasy XIIIFinal Fantasy XIIIFive Nights at Freddy'sFive Nights at Freddy's
Game of Thrones (Telltale series 1-2)Game of Thrones (Telltale series 1-2)God of War IIIGod of War III
Gone HomeGone HomeGrand Theft Auto VGrand Theft Auto V
L.A. NoireL.A. NoireLifeless PlanetLifeless Planet
Lollipop ChainsawLollipop ChainsawMad MaxMad Max
Madden NFL 11Madden NFL 11Madden NFL 12Madden NFL 12
Madden NFL 13Madden NFL 13Madden NFL 15Madden NFL 15
Madden NFL 16Madden NFL 16Madden NFL 17Madden NFL 17
Mars Rover LandingMars Rover LandingMetal Gear Solid V: the Phantom PainMetal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain
MiasmataMiasmataMiddle-Earth: Shadow of MordorMiddle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
NCAA Football 11NCAA Football 11NCAA Football 12NCAA Football 12
NCAA Football 13NCAA Football 13No Man's SkyNo Man's Sky
Papers, PleasePapers, PleasePortal 2Portal 2
Red Dead RedemptionRed Dead RedemptionResident Evil RemasteredResident Evil Remastered
Rock Band 3Rock Band 3Room 404Room 404
Sid Meier's Civilization VSid Meier's Civilization VSid Meier's Civilization V: Brave New WorldSid Meier's Civilization V: Brave New World
Sid Meier's Civilization V: Gods & KingsSid Meier's Civilization V: Gods & KingsSid Meier's Civilization VISid Meier's Civilization VI
Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond EarthSid Meier's Civilization: Beyond EarthSid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth Rising TideSid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth Rising Tide
Silent Hill 4: the RoomSilent Hill 4: the RoomSilent Hill HD CollectionSilent Hill HD Collection
Silent Hill: Shattered MemoriesSilent Hill: Shattered MemoriesSillent Hill DownpourSillent Hill Downpour
SimCity (2013)SimCity (2013)SimCity BuilditSimCity Buildit
SomaSomaSpider-Man: Edge of TimeSpider-Man: Edge of Time
Spider-Man: Shattered DimensionsSpider-Man: Shattered DimensionsStar Trek TrexelsStar Trek Trexels
The Amazing Spider-ManThe Amazing Spider-ManThe Amazing Spider-Man 2The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Elder Scrolls V: SkyrimThe Elder Scrolls V: SkyrimThe Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim DLCThe Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim DLC
The Evil WithinThe Evil WithinThe Last of UsThe Last of Us
The SaboteurThe SaboteurThe SwapperThe Swapper
The Witcher 3: Wild HuntThe Witcher 3: Wild HuntThis War of MineThis War of Mine
This War of Mine: the Little OnesThis War of Mine: the Little OnesTomb Raider (2013)Tomb Raider (2013)
Total War: AttilaTotal War: AttilaTotal War: Rome IITotal War: Rome II
Total War: Shogun 2Total War: Shogun 2Total War: Shogun 2: Fall of the SamuraiTotal War: Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai
TrineTrineTropico 5Tropico 5
Uncharted 3: Drake's DeceptionUncharted 3: Drake's DeceptionUntil DawnUntil Dawn

Contribute Comment

avatar


We'll incarnate your avatar from the services below.
PlayStation Network Steam Xbox LIVE Facebook MySpace Pinterest Twitter YouTube deviantART LiveJournal



biuquote
  • Comment
  • Preview


Grid Clock Widget
12      60
11      55
10      50
09      45
08      40
07      35
06      30
05      25
04      20
03      15
02      10
01      05
Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

Follow me on Twitter at: twitter.com/MegaBearsFan

Featured Post

College football playoff expansion is inevitable. Who should get in?College football playoff expansion is inevitable. Who should get in?01/16/2015 Advocates of a college football championship playoff may feel a little vindicated after the inaugural championship game earlier this week. The #4 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes defeated the #2 ranked Oregon Ducks with a decisive three-score lead. And they did this after also defeating the #1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. For years,...

Recent Posts

Month List

Random Post

'Portal 2' - Did we really need another Portal?'Portal 2' - Did we really need another Portal?12/30/2012 This review was originally published 05/15/2011 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes. Yes GladOS, we brought you back to life because we really do love to test! To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this game. I love the first Portal, as it was about...