What is it that makes us human? Books have been asking this for centuries, and movies have been asking since before movies had spoken dialogue. Books like Frankenstein, movies like Metropolis and Blade Runner. If you were looking at your own body from the outside, are you still you?
That's what SOMA, by Frictional Games, asks of the player. To examine the question, we're taken to the bottom of the ocean, to an undersea lab named Pathos II, where something has gone terribly wrong.
Frictional Games has been making games for some time but they're best known for Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a Lovecraftian style horror game set in a Victorian era mansion.
It's easy to go into SOMA thinking you're getting the same thing. In some ways you are, but the end effect is a very different one, and not just because everything's made out of steel and glass instead of stone and wood.
Have we been here before?
There are some undeniable similarities between 2010's Amnesia and SOMA. You'll spend a lot of time in the dark, listening to audio logs and pulling levers and switches. You'll spend a lot of the time hiding from unspeakable monsters that the game literally won't let you look directly at.
What makes SOMA tick is less about jump scares and a constantly elevated heartbeat and more about the lingering questions and feelings it leaves you with. It's not as scary, moment to moment, as Amnesia, which will inevitably bother some fans going in looking for more of the same. I'll admit, though, that might just be because I generally don't find science fiction horror quite as scary as some other types.
SOMA puts you right in the thick of those questions almost immediately, though. Shortly after waking up in a dismal undersea laboratory with no memory of how he got there, protagonist Simon Jarrett comes across a heap of machinery on the floor. It's talking in a disconcertingly human voice, and powered by some thick, tendril-like cables. Unfortunately, the communications console in the room needs power, and so something has to be unplugged … like that talking pile of metal.
Did you just kill someone? Was that thing human? SOMA doesn't feature any combat, but you're asked more than once to think about your actions as you push toward finding out who you are and just what is going on in this place.
The lab, Pathos II, is pretty believable thanks to a lot of good work designing a place that feels like it has all the necessary pieces to be a real laboratory that was, at one point, filled with people and activity. This isn't a place where things were left half-finished, though, as with many of the abandoned locales so common to games. It's hard to describe what happened without spoiling things, but suffice to say that people knew the end was coming, and then the end took a left turn. The inhabitants of Pathos II were already winding things down when they suddenly went wrong, and that shows in the way the environments are built.
This means that what remains of these people is that much more believable and that makes it that much more disturbing.
Reality floods in
I played the game on a pretty beefy PC – we're talking a GTX 970, 16GB RAM, and a Core i5 Haswell processor. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt runs pretty flawlessly with most of the settings cranked up.
Despite this, I had a lot of trouble getting SOMA to run consistently. I eventually got it nailed down and looking good, but it took a while. Even then, the texture work shows that this is the product of a relatively small studio.
Different elements throughout the game hint at that, as well.
For example, SOMA does its best to avoid animating humans of any kind. This mostly works for lonely horror games like these, but it puts cracks in the game's veneer.
As in Amnesia, being seen by or looking at the monsters hunting you down is discouraged by filling the screen with graphical effects — audio-visual glitches instead of wavering vision. An important scene where you encounter another character is interrupted by a cut to black just as the character turns around to see you.
What seemed novel in Amnesia feels like a crutch at times in SOMA.
Whether you play the game on PC or PlayStation 4, though, SOMA should be a pretty near-identical experience outside of the issues I spoke of above. Puzzles are fairly simple most of the time and don't require precise movement, so a controller works fine.
My other issue lies with the main character, Simon. There are really only about three characters in the game. One is formally introduced so late that it felt like an afterthought. Simon, though, is this generic, milquetoast dude. He's not Half-Life's Gordon Freeman – he responds to stimuli, has thoughts on the situation – but he's not interesting, and feels like something the developer put in place so that their assumed audience could layer their own responses onto him. Some of the situations he responds to with less intensity than one would expect, while he flies off the handle in others. It ends up feeling inconsistent.
Catherine, the voice over the intercom that guides you through the world of Pathos II is more complex and interesting. She isn't as new to all of this as Simon is, and has had more time to deal with it and the events that led up to it. She's really the star of the show, but that doesn't excuse Simon being such a boring character.
Despite that, I can say without hinting at what happens that the ending is downright chilling and will leave the game's big question lingering in your mind for some time. I ended up dreaming about it the next night after finishing it. It wasn't a nightmare, but it left a different kind of mark.
The game does clock in at about 10 hours, so if you do that equation before you purchase a game, take that into account in comparison with the game's $30 U.S. price tag. It's an interesting experience that shows at the same time how Frictional is trying to break out of their mold but simultaneously held back by it, and I hope they can stretch out even further the next time around.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of SOMA for the PC from the publisher. We completed the campaign before writing this review.