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Game review 24 September 2015, 10:15

author: Mathias Zulpo

SOMA Review – a horror straight from the depths of the sea by the creators of Amnesia

Frictional Games has stood up to the challenge – SOMA is by far the biggest, most scary and elaborate project of the Swedish studio. However, it got lost in its fundamental premise.

The review is based on the PC version.

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  1. Marvelously designed, thought-out, coherent, and great-looking world;
  2. Constant feeling of being uncertain and overwhelmed combined with almost tangible fear create an extremely heavy atmosphere;
  3. Diversity of the different stages and confrontations with underwater monsters;
  4. Simple but interestingly implemented logic elements;
  5. Environmental puzzles diversifying the gameplay;
  6. Quite satisfactory exploration;
  7. Well-paced, smoothly unraveling story...
  1. ... that disappoints with its content;
  2. Incompetent way of presenting the "depth" of the production;
  3. Unconvincing main character.

Great expectations regarding SOMA could hardly be surprising. The terrifying Amnesia: The Dark Descent granted studio Frictional Games the prestigious title of masters of horror and, according to many players, redefined (albeit accidentally) the genre, demonstrating the true power of independent productions. For five long years the Swedish team has been preparing its next work, meant to redefine the genre once again, this time deliberately, giving the concept of "fear" a brand new meaning. In fact, SOMA features some changes – it is different from Penumbra or The Dark Descent, abandoning Lovecraftian motives and simplicity, and replacing them with a creative, original approach to the subject. And although one might question if it were the right move, given its consequences, fans of the Swedish team should not feel disappointed – SOMA, although it desperately tries to be "something more", in its core remains a perfectly realized horror that imbues proven ideas with entirely new solutions.

No gods or kings – only robots

The most noticeable changes were implemented in what we can see, and that is – literally – breathtaking. We are transferred deep into the water, to a vast facility called PATHOS-II located at the bottom of the ocean, which surprises us not only with its complexity, but also the design and variety of different sectors. Inspired by grim SF, the complex controlled by artificial intelligence consists of locations that frighten us with the threat of impending death and induce a feeling of containment and isolation. This is due in part to HPL Engine 3, which is a proprietary engine using the depth of field, so as to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the game, appropriately subdued lighting and grey colors, as well as completely eliminating loading screens. The creators also used it to generate a whole slew of physical objects filling the cabinets, floating in the water and embellishing the environment with their presence – and at the same time waiting to be lifted and thrust in any direction. With verve and meticulous attention to detail, Frictional Games has created a deeply atmospheric environment, featuring corridors enveloped in thick darkness, sterile laboratories, or offices overgrown with a disturbing organic substance, as well as skillfully developed and well-detailed underwater areas that we visit regularly throughout the game.

Even Rapture would acknowledge the majesty of PATHOS – above we can see the entrance to Omicron zone.

The very way the underwater complex was created is a clear signal that the developers were going to move away from Amnesia-like corridors, which of course does not mean that we were given a sandbox – SOMA remains a completely linear production. However, the variety and the appropriate balancing of the size of levels (from extremely small, designed as place of confrontation with mutated enemies, to the more extensive ones, limited only by the vastness of the ocean, which allow the action to slow down, as well as smooth down the complexities of the story), combined with suggesting that we can choose a path leading to the destination effectively create a false impression of a game made on an unprecedented scale. It is hard to feel cheated when such an approach to design of levels perfectly shows what the developers had in mind. During "scary sequences", which mostly consist in escaping and hiding from danger, the boundaries of environment are able to build extra tension when out of the blue we get into a cul-de-sac, while during calmer moments nosing around all areas is rewarded by finding notes or records which give a broader understanding of the course of the story. Strong connection between the character of locations and the story and events unraveling on the screen effectively reduces the invasiveness of world boundaries, while stressing the narrative nature of the production.

Ejecting the chip only appears once in SOMA – as any other minigame.

What’s more, "narrative" is in this case a word of great importance, dominating the rest of the game – passive presentation of the story known from Amnesia was replaced by cinematic, interactive fragments which sum up the tasks we perform, smoothly separating individual levels without feeling forced, even if they take some time. It’s also possible to have comprehensive conversations, which contribute the most to dynamic development of the story, despite the fact that we won't meet many sapient companions – in general, we encounter death or robots with human-like qualities, which, however, becomes justified in the course of the story. In turn, we get to know the past of PATHOS in a more standard way, for example by listening to messages recorded by dead personnel, reading emails, or viewing photos. The creators implemented a hierarchy of significance of the individual elements of the story so skillfully that even skipping all optional sources of information will not result in missing the main plotline, only in losing the chance to piece together some facts.

This screenshot contains at least one disturbing element.

The rising wave

Putting a greater emphasis on the cinematic aspect and more dynamic pace resulted in some simplifications in mechanics – elements known from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, such as mental condition indicator or interactive equipment, were not used, but it's hard to call such a "hat-tip to A Machine for Pigs" a disadvantage. SOMA quite deliberately went in the direction that doesn’t need this kind of additions, and replaced them with a variety of other measures, more complementary with the story and the world. Among them we can distinguish logical and environmental puzzles – when traversing further sectors of the complex, we find a real plethora of such elements and – most importantly – never experience monotony. Frictional Games have invested in diversity, putting it on their list of priorities above complexity, which resulted in the occurrence of a series of unique "challenges" – from the traditional use of chair to break a window, through specifying the right signal providing access to a means of transport, to running a specially arranged computer simulation.

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