Soma made me think. A sci-fi horror adventure from Frictional Games, creators of Amnesia, it left me needing breaks to calm down, the tension often taking its toll on my nerves, but the scares aren’t Soma’s defining feature. Bizarrely, and quite unexpectedly, once the credits rolled and I’d seen all the game had to offer, I was left pondering some big questions. Similar ideas have been explored elsewhere in science fiction, but in a video game, a video game that handles the subject so excellently, it’s something to be celebrated. That sounded a bit pretentious, didn’t it? Sorry. Soma doesn’t come across as pretentious, which is one of the reasons I like it so much.
Set on board a deep sea facility (and in the open water surrounding it), Soma presents a harrowing tale woven into a first-person survival horror that has no combat. You’ll do a lot of exploring, listening to audio from long-gone workers, reading notes, looking at pictures, and solving puzzles to get a sense of what’s going on. While the main story beats are told explicitly through the core characters, all this backstory acts as the goo that holds the whole thing together.
Key to Soma’s success is an incredible sense of tension. The expertly crafted world, the tremendous audio work (even if the voice acting is a tad ropey) and an intense sense of loneliness combine to unnerve. I can’t remember a single jump-scare, which might be disappointing for some, but the terror here is more believable. At one point I accidentally kicked a discarded helmet down some stairs while moving around a near-dark room, the resulting din causing me to believe a nasty was chasing me. I hid in a corner of the room for about a minute before venturing out and noticing my mistake.
Monsters are dotted about the adventure just enough to be on your mind, and their design (especially their shrieks and movements) helped to send a shiver up my spine on many occasions. I’m not entirely clear on how each monstrosity detects your presence (some appear to work on sight, others sound, perhaps movement), but when they come at you it’s terrifying. Death at their hands is never really a punishment: the game even gives you a second chance, restarting where you got attacked or at the previous checkpoint if you die properly. Given the unpleasantness of a monster attack, avoiding it (and the disconcerting screen effects that come with it) is still definitely preferable.
Despite puzzles frequently blocking your progress, none are tricky enough to be annoying roadblocks. I found myself getting to the bottom of the smarter ones with a bit of thought, and any general ‘what am I meant to do now?’ moments can quickly be resolved by talking to your companion NPC. Lots of what you’re asked to do feels logical within the game world, and even an initially head-scratching problem involving hard drive storage space (it’s not as dull as it sounds) was perfectly solvable once I tackled it like I would in real life. This might sound rather obvious, but being so heavily weighted in reality really helps the immersion.
What doesn’t help is a disappointing string of performance issues on PS4. The game frequently pauses to load (remember Half-Life 2?) and around the same time stutters into a single digit frame rate. Load times are also noticeably long, failing the ‘did I start using my phone?’ test. All of this is a big shame as generally Soma is one of the most visually interesting games I’ve played in some time. The underwater sequences, in particular those near the end, are glorious, using sensory deprivation to great effect.
If you’re after more details from on what exactly is going on, stop looking. Your experience with Soma could easily be lessened, quite significantly, if you learn too much about the plot, who you play and what your goals are. The game’s slowly-unfolding story, and the choices you live with, make the experience one that will stay with you for some time, the ending hitting all the right notes. I’m thinking about the ending right now (14:35 BST September 22), and was thinking about it last night. You’ll probably like thinking about it too.