Horror games, much like horror films, are suffering something of an identity crisis in 2015. Often times, brooding atmosphere and subtlety takes second place to jump-scares and the moments that will elicit the most obvious and “watchable” reactions.
For a game to get under a player’s skin, it requires a layered narrative that unfolds in increasingly startling waves and a world that feels lived in.
SOMA, the latest title from Amnesia developer Frictional Games, accomplishes all the key elements to building a great horror environment and backs it up with a solid story that asks many great questions about the human condition.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent popularized the type of horror game that relied on intimate encounters with creatures of unfathomable terror and slowly building an unsettling atmosphere over the course of 8-10 hours.
There have since been many imitations, hoping to cash in on the YouTube reactions of players who experienced the game alone in a dark environment.
Alien: Isolation was the mainstream adaptation of this formula, and over-relied on the hide-and-seek mechanic to middling results. It seems that since the original Amnesia, this formula has remained rather stagnant with a flux of games only aiming to copy that success.
While SOMA doesn’t necessarily change the entire formula or reinvigorate the genre, it is an exceptional horror title that finds more success in its narrative twists and implications than outright creepy creature encounters.
At first, the story is a typical set-up where our clueless protagonist who recently lost his memory experiences an exposition dump as the player is familiarized with simple controls for picking up items and looking around, but the pacing soon picks up and takes off on a thrilling ride.
The player finds Simon Jarrett in an underwater research facility, where things are clearly not going very well. Through blood-soaked walls and eerie echoes, Simon slowly pieces together exactly what set up the situation he is in.
From there, the narrative is mainly fueled forward by audio logs and diary entries, both of which are available in excess for anyone willing to explore every inch of PATHOS-2.
Unfortunately, much of the plot does come from these archives and the game forces you to stand still in one location and listen as they play out. Since most of the gameplay is puzzle solving and exploration, it would have been nice to be able to take these tapes with you as you crawled through the base’s interior.
While exploring though, the stellar sound design shines and adds a layer of tension and paranoia to even the most insignificant actions.
You will hear rolling moans that send chills down your spine, unsure if the source is a humpback whale or an undead creature lurching through the abandoned base. The underwater station will creak occasionally, showing its age and giving you a jolt if you have a good speaker setup or high quality headphones.
The voice acting also shines in SOMA, especially for the automated robots that occupy the empty hallways of the sub-nautical research facility.
These characters start out as a charming form of comic relief, but as the curtains are pulled back on the shocking history of the base, these robotic helpers become somber voices that add another layer to the twisted setting.
Being set on the ocean floor, one would expect SOMA to feel distinct from other horror games that have players exploring abandoned buildings and ominous hallways. It may just be a personal disappointment, but SOMA never really takes advantage of its underwater setting outside of a few memorable moments.
At times, it feels like the player could be exploring a space station or something above ground, except for the brief segments that require walking out in the abyss from base to base.
These segments draw attention to the game’s most significant flaw — the lack of direction in increasingly similar environments. Much of the tension built over the course of the game is lost when spending twenty minutes trying to get your bearings set in a grey hallway surrounded by other grey hallways.
The game will encourage you to pick up and examine every item you can interact with as you explore the environments. Sometimes this is crucial to moving forward — and missing a certain object will eventually cause you to hit a wall — and sometimes this just serves to flesh out the backdrop.
The story of SOMA itself is the real star here, even over the isolated exploration. Discovering what happened on the PATHOS-2 base and its implications for the world our characters live in was an absolutely chilling experience.
It especially made the creatures that wander the base more frightening once you know exactly how they had come into being. There were several moments in the game where my jaw dropped and my spine chilled, so it is recommended to know as little of the plot as possible before diving in.
Finding files from previous employees is often harrowing as well when you know their eventual outcome and audio files saved on computers contain hints to future plot points.
SOMA effectively builds a creepy environment with enough layers to keep players engaged for its entire runtime. The game isn’t very long and follows a strictly linear narrative, but the plot moves at a great pace and keeps players guessing until the very last minute.
As far as survival horror games go, SOMA isn’t terribly difficult but adheres to the standard set by previous titles.
There are moments that are reminiscent of both Bioshock and Amnesia: The Dark Descent but SOMA manages to shine with an original story that perfectly fits the bleak world players must traverse.
It cleverly avoids the pitfalls of the genre, such as an overbearing inventory management system, and makes use of outstanding sound design to craft an experience that is sure to terrify you and make you think critically about the world we live in.