Played on Windows.
Also Available on Linux, macOS, PlayStation, Xbox One.
I am terrified of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It is one of the scariest games I have ever played and made me swear off Frictional Games altogether. It’s not that I hate the developer, I think they are one of the best at what they do, but that’s horror which is a genre I avoid. Yet I have played and am now reviewing Soma, so what changed?
Well, Soma isn’t exactly like Amnesia. We’re still in the realm of horror, but much like Get Out is more of a thriller than a straight-up horror movie, Soma is more of a thriller, while Amnesia is some of the darkest terror I’ve played. It’s interesting what can be done with the horror genre for video games even seeing it reach the action genre, like the Resident Evil franchise and Alien: Isolation. But let’s focus on Soma.
We start off with the weakest part of Soma. Graphically, Soma is acceptable. With the horror genre, there are a number of ways to scare people and effective ways to induce horror. You can choose macabre images, you can hide information, or you can just terrorize the player with how your visuals are set up. Soma tries to do all three, and I’m not sure they work as intended.
Soma’s graphics work for what it’s trying to do but they are often muddy and pieces run together. You might see a robot begging for help, but it’s very hard to really define exactly what you’re seeing outside of a moving arm or camera looking object. Over time you’ll often see dead bodies that seem to be trapped in a wall, but you’ll see that same type of image over and over til it feels like it becomes a standard template.
It’s not very clear what’s going on here, but I think it’s bioluminescent tentacles/roots.
There were a couple of points where I saw what I thought was a dead body, and I couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be, or if it was fully dead. I thought I heard it moaning and kept thinking it was a trap that would eventually rise up.
I believe pieces of this is set up to be part of the game. Soma doesn’t want you to understand the world easily or even know what’s going on. It wants you to have to look, study, and earn an understanding of the environment. To experience the full world of Soma and grasp what you are seeing should be a struggle and make you nervous as you do so.
But the result is more confusing than anything. The question of what you are looking at sometimes isn’t fully explained and it’s due to the design more than anything. It’s a shame, but I almost assume it’s intentional to keep the player off balance.
Part of doing this is similar to how Amnesia: The Dark Descent worked or really most horror games. Horror as a genre, no matter what form it takes (films, games, or books) works best when it focuses on what you can and can’t see, or limits what you’re able to view because what is unseen will always be far scarier than the actual form.
Because of this, Soma is dark, very dark, and it’s often hard to make out part of the level because of it. While the player will get a flashlight, it’s small and often ineffective at illuminating the level, but coupled with the weaker visuals doesn’t help the player really understand the world or space he finds himself in.
It’s hard to make out, but the screen distortion is very annoying.
At the same time, Soma also plays with those visuals, particularly around enemies. In fact, almost every enemy seems to create this strange screen distortion effect. While the player can turn off the effect, this is intentional for Soma to again add to the horror. I’m unsure if it works as intended. It definitely limits the player’s visibility but it’s more distracting than anything.
All of this ends up creating a game where I feel I have to call out its graphics. While some of these graphics are done for gameplay reason (there is a blurring effect that happens due to health damage), or fear (the distortion effect), It’s not a very interesting game to look at the outside of the experience.
Soma’s experience is what you want to come for. Soma starts with the player waking up at home after a dream of a car crash he had previously. It starts rather normal with the player getting a phone call that he’s going to get his brain scanned. From there, he has to find a liquid the doctor asks him to take, and the player starts to search the apartment for this liquid.
This is a strange opening for a horror game but effective. Knowing Amnesia’s history I was apprehensive for doing almost anything at the beginning, cringing when I opened a door or nervous when I opened a cabinet. I even was nervous when I went into the confined space of a shower, but this is actually a rather standard opening. The scene is set up so we can learn about your main character, Simon.
A rather simple apartment that we start with. It’s normal and really sets an odd tone.
Following a short subway ride, the player finds a dark unlit office and can explore it, even turning on the lights or opening the windows, but again the game paints an interesting picture, and the fact is, this is very effective at throwing the player off balance. These opening pieces are similar to the climb up the first hill of a rollercoaster when the player isn’t fully aware of what’s coming and just feels the anticipation. I personally didn’t know much about Soma before playing and I honestly was confused at what type of game I was going to get into.
From there the player’s brain is scanned by a scientist and suddenly Soma really begins, knocking the player’s understanding of the world away and throwing him into the real game, thrust into the year 2103. Our character awakens in a strange room alone and is forced to explore a station of some sort piecing together both what happened in the location, and how he arrived.
Let me just pause here and say Soma is a masterpiece in how it tells its story. It’s effective at every turn and really understands how to leave the player wanting more and get them to piece the world together themselves. I found myself devouring the most basic logs in Soma where most games might have me skip them. I just wanted to understand the world at a deeper level and Soma led me by the nose on its journey due to that.
To get into a little more spoilerish area of explaining the story. If you wish to avoid this, you can skip to the gameplay section. Soma is about an underwater research facility after something (redacted) has happened to humanity. There is a lot of information unpacked in Soma here, and I’ll avoid saying too much, but the player explores much of the facility as he begins to understand various problems that have occurred before, and tries to finish the last great task of the team.
Soma also heavily dips into the ideas of transhumanism, and what it would be like if one can transfer a human’s consciousness from a body to something else. It’s an interesting idea, and Soma explores these thoughts in a compelling way. It’s an idea that I’ve found strange and off-putting before, but Soma almost makes me accept it through its narrative.
Catherine here is one of the few people you’ll interact directly with.
Soma is somewhat limited in the storytelling though as the player is often alone. Where there are a couple of people in the story, they’re not always around and large chunks of the game are played without any conversation being present, but it’s in these silent moments that you feel Simon’s isolation and the true horror of the game occurs. The player feels the need to push on not just to fill in the story but to reach a new pseudo familiar surrounding again or to just communicate with someone yet again.
But as I state, Soma is masterful in the way it handles the story and atmosphere and delivers its entire experience through a variety of means, from voice recording, conversations logs, and atmosphere and it’s worth playing for that.
Soma’s gameplay is probably the make or break point for the title. It’s very easy to look at Soma and after some thought realize that Soma is ultimately a walking simulator with some puzzles. Similar to Amnesia, the player isn’t given a weapon or a way to fight against enemies, so at best, the player can only avoid danger and get away from them.
But also there are not a huge number of enemies in Soma, I’m unsure the exact number in most areas but I would guess there’s normally only a single enemy in each location of the game, and even there, they tend to stick to themselves unless Simon directly interacts with them. While some will try to seek Simon out, a vast majority of them seem more focused on other tasks and will barely notice him.
The enemies are strange and off putting, but you won’t really have the ability to stare at most of them for long.
That’s not to say there is nothing else in Soma but much of the game is focused on getting to the next location or doing a task that involves using computers. There are a number of points where the player is just focused on a path ahead of him.
At the same time, much of Soma’s game is spent masking what would be a rather plain walk. Whether it be new environments, story, or dangers, the player is kept in suspense. At least half of the game, I spent worried that a monster would creep up on me even though the monsters are somewhat sparse.
At the same time, the monsters aren’t as scary on paper as they are in the game. Without a true life bar, I wasn’t able to be sure, but it seemed that the player will die after two hits from the monsters. The first hit will just knock the player out and the monster will respawn a decent distance away. The second hit will display a number of random images ending with “You’re dead” While the second doesn’t sound terrifying, I am glad I won’t experience that again.
But admittedly I don’t know if the monsters are as terrifying after playing. A number of times I would know where this game’s version of a health pack is. In Soma, the player can heal up from touching a very specific part of a strange growth that heals damage, so while I might get hit one time, a quick trip to the health fairy, which is quite common in the game, meant that I was ready to survive another hit. In addition, most of the time these attacks came when I was very close to an exit which I was moving towards, so while I did need to heal myself, I often was able to just move on to the next area and heal there since the monsters would respawn far enough away after their first task that I could progress.
That’s the analytical mind working on the problem. In heat of the moment, the enemies in Soma are terrifying. When coupled with the inability to look at them due to the screen distortion, the thumping of their feet, their fast attacks and their unpredictability, the experience of running into these monsters are moments of pure dread and terror. Though it’s more similar to the Aliens in Alien’s Isolation, in that the player can be aware of what the enemy is doing and run and hide if they are quick enough to break the line of sight, they are still fearsome enemies.
There are a number of audio logs like this. They are well acted and really fill in a lot of back story.
There is now a safe mode in Soma to fully disable the monsters. I honestly don’t believe it’s necessary for any player, but it’s good to see for those who are afraid of being attacked. Though with that said, I think it’s best for players to attempt Soma on a regular playthrough and then try the safe mode if they’re unable to enjoy the experience with the monsters.
Beyond the monsters, much of Soma is relatively straight forward. The player will get a helpful AI early on who can tell him how to explore and delve deeper into the facilities he finds himself. Often this involves exploring and touching everything the player can find. They might have to reboot a power system, so they can use a system or reach a communication array that will allow them to talk to someone at another facility, but each step is usually well defined and there are useful hints as you go along. For instance, if you have to power down the fluid control, you might want to look on the wall and notice a fluid control sign pointing you in the direction of it.
Though the facilities aren’t always well laid out there are usually only a handful of rooms and areas that have to be explored. These exploration segments tend to avoid monsters. Whereas when monsters are around there are usually clear cut goals so the player doesn’t have to wander and get attacked while exploring.
You’ll have to manipulate a number of computer systems along the way.
At its heart though, while there are some minor puzzles involved in Soma, Soma is ultimately about the story. The terror, the exploration and the puzzles are all in service to giving a singular experience. Ultimately, the gameplay while enjoyable is always going to be in service of Soma’s story.
I like Soma a lot, but I like it because it’s a horror game that’s not too scary but is compelling the entire time. It’s similar to why I liked the movies Get Out or Black Mirror, no matter how intense these experiences are, I’m never compelled to turn it off or look away. The fear from the experience is done in equal balances with the desire to see it through until the end.
While I might not think much of Soma’s graphics, I do have to say it’s the story that kept me coming, and the final moments of Soma left me speechless. Soma does its job so effectively that it’s worthy of playing because it really is a roller coaster ride, one that you may never forget.
I give Soma a
Final thoughts: More of a thriller than a pure horror game, Soma creates a world the player wants to explore to understand, and yet will still be afraid of. It’s horror, but horror I was able to enjoy.
Stats: 8 hours played, 10/10 achievements earned (all storyline)