Review: SOMA delivers a compelling story

Frictional Games’ SOMA is a superb horror game with an equally superb story that doesn’t rely on cheap scares or shock value. The real terror is inside your head.

Frictional Games are the same folks responsible for the equally excellent horror game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  And if you dig deeper into their past, similar games in the Penumbra series. All of these games rely on puzzle-solving, exploration, and… a lot of running away and hiding from things that will kill you in the face.

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SOMA screenshot. Your day starts innocently enough…

 Welcome to a new nightmare

SOMA delivers taut thrills in dark, claustrophobic environments with unnerving visuals and even more unnerving audio cues. Better still, SOMA’s creepy atmosphere is much more ‘organic’ than many horror games, ramping up tension through its environment but stimulating your curiosity and inspiring exploration.
Frictional Games could definitely teach the developers of the much more heavily funded, heavy-handed, and largely inept game The Evil Within a lesson or two about good horror and storytelling.

SOMA keeps you guessing from the beginning, slowly unfolding its puzzling events as you experience it. You will slowly learn what is and has happened, but not through tedious cut scenes or amateurish exposition by other characters. And true to Frictional’s claims, it will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve completed the game.

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“Soma is a sci-fi horror game that questions our concepts of identity, consciousness, and what it means to be human.” (from SOMA press materials)

SOMA’s existential theme—what it is that makes us human—is central to the story, and SOMA will keep you guessing as to what is actually happening to you well into the game. Are you in a virtual reality? Are you even actually alive—or for that matter, what is our definition of ‘alive’?

Discovery is half the fun, whereas the other half is running scared, hiding from monsters, and solving puzzles to further reveal the story.

I won’t spoil any of it, but I’ll give you a spoiler-free prologue that comprises about the first 10 minutes of the game (the tutorial basically): You play as a man named Simon suffering from a life-threatening brain injury. You go to an appointment to meet a man named Mr. Munshi—a Doctorate student who is going to perform a new type of brain scan (kind of like an MRI) on you in the hopes of developing a treatment for you.

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After finding Mr. Munshi, you have your brain scanned. And then you awaken (mere seconds later) in a mysterious, industrial facility. And it becomes quickly apparent that things are not quite right here—wherever here is.

Confused? Don’t worry, so is Simon.

But you’ll have to figure out what happened on your own. Thus the mystery of SOMA begins, and that’s as much as I’ll reveal. The rest of the story unravels as you play, and it’s an experience I highly recommend. If you’re already fan of Frictional’s work, SOMA is easily their best yet, particularly in terms of the narrative. But to truly appreciate it, you’ll need to explore the environments, read notes, listen to audio logs, and (of course) spend a lot of time running and hiding from bizarre creatures that haunt the facility.

Gameplay

Like Frictional’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent there is no combat, and all of the puzzles are ‘realistic’ – usually consisting of finding items, inserting them in the correct place, or solving button and lever-based puzzles to activate or deactivate things—all while avoiding various frightening creatures in the game.

The horrors wandering the halls of the facility spell insta-doom—well, sort of—and this is about the only real criticism against SOMA: It’s not very difficult, and in truth not quite as scary as Amnesia. There’s little real ‘death penalty’ in the game. When a monster catches you, it basically ‘whacks’ you, and then you awaken right where you got whacked, weakened but ready to continue to the game.

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This reduces the scare factor a bit, but it also eliminates frustration and enables you to focus more on problem solving and uncovering the game’s story.

It’s a tradeoff, but SOMA still delivers scares and thrills. Frictional makes ample use of audio-visual cues to let you know you’re in trouble. When a monster is near, the screen flutters visually and audibly, somewhat like a video feed losing a signal. The effect is unnerving enough in itself, and (especially early in the game) it will frequently send you scurrying away to hide in a dark corner—sometimes without even knowing what you’re running from.

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But story is still clearly the focus for SOMA, and it delivers a taut, engaging one from the beginning to its very satisfying conclusion. It’s never quite as terrifying as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but it delivers a stronger overall narrative in about 10 hours of gameplay. To get the most out of it, however, be sure to explore and read/listen to as much auxiliary content as possible. You’ll learn enough through the dialog, but there’s a lot of ancillary information to be found as well.

Overall: Highly Recommended

If you’re already a fan of Frictional Games, SOMA is a must-have game. If you’re a fan of creepy horror games, SOMA is a must-have game. If you like horror games with a good story, SOMA is a must-have game.

Hell, just buy SOMA on Steam already. It’s well worth it, and it will almost make you feel bad for fellow horror fans that dumped $50-$60 into the hot mess that was The Evil Within when it launched.

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