SOMA (Xbox One) Review – Better Safe than Sorry
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One (reviewed)
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Release: 1st December 2017 (Xbox One)
SOMA, easily mixed up with Brave New World´s drug, was originally released in 2015 and quickly gathered a lot praise and attention with its supposedly great story and atmosphere. However IU never got around to play it, mainly due to the redundant stealth gameplay, that was so popular back then. So when a Xbox One version was announced, two years after its release, along the so-called “safe mode”, which removes the hostility of every enemy, I got very interested and after experiencing it for the first time, I can understand why it became such a hit … to a certain degree.
After a car accident Simon Jarret suffers under significant health problems. In desperate need of help he decides to participate in an experimental neurological procedure, without any working proof. As expected, nothing goes as expected and he soon finds himself in a mysterious underwater base, full of hostile robotic lifeforms and other strange creatures, blocking his path to answers.
Nearly everything SOMA does in its set-up is unique, interesting and truly captivating. While the beginning may feel like every other ordinary walking simulator, especially after completing the game. With ordinary horror clichés it builds up expectations, just to break them down in an instant, throwing both Simon and the player in a world where no one knows what´s gonna happen. Until the end it relentlessly makes use of seemingly redundant methods, in order to switch to a whole other direction. Never knowing what can happen in the next moment or what´s the goal of the game are essential parts of SOMA´s truly shrouded story and world.
A risky move, considering how much it depends on the underlying story to constantly surprise the player with new turns. Luckily that´s exactly where the game shines, delivering a plot around a sci-fi station, carrying its own past, as well as Simon´s problems and confusion. I can´t spoil much but similar to their previous game Amnesia, it´s by far not an optimistic, happy ending experience, requiring both the character and you to go on a journey through a station where everyone´s dead, except one sole person, andwe slowly discover the hopes and believes of the people who once lived there. It´s an extremely interesting plot, able to surprise till its end because it smartly leads the player down paths totally unrelated to the actual events, while giving just enough hope to keep us pushing until the end.
Similar to most other horror indie games, SOMA makes heavy use of notes, control pads, audio logs and so on to tell the background story of its mysterious underwater base. Surely it´s not the most innovative way but works as great as in any other game, the amount of good voice acting in particular really helps to let them shine. However the main plot occasionally features more linear story segments, best described as pure walking simulators with pretty interesting dialogues. A good change of pace but ultimately the storytelling itself isn´t too unique nor interesting if you already played some horror or indie games in general.
Instead Frictional Games relied on environmental storytelling, combined with a truly tense atmosphere created, by great visuals. Though the textures and models are mostly very average, especially on Xbox One, with some pixelated wall or object textures, the lighting is SOMA´s biggest strength, as expected from a horror game. Be it the various colours and atmospheres created by the diverse lighting sources or the sheer amount of dark areas only held together by smart use of them, the underwater station can look pretty damn great even nowadays. Only the fact the whole game freezes at some points to load a new map, rather than using an ordinary loading screen, can sometimes break the atmosphere or is simply annoying.
Originally the gameplay consisted of the typical hiding from evil one-hitters, typical for horror games of that time and even today. Often confronted with roboters, infested with biological seeming matter, Simon has to hide, activate various things to progress, like a door, and slowly progress through the giant station. Basically, SOMA works on three layers, to generate a terror horror atmosphere: The clam passages where no enemies are present and puzzles are in the foreground, scenes in which enemy appearances are scripted to frighten, rather than kill and the before mentioned hiding ones. Personally, I hate this approach to horror, a terrorizing atmosphere isn´t hard to pull off nor impressive since it relies on the natural adrenaline produced by our body if we´re chased for example. Smart horror is created by creating atmosphere, not relying on chases, it´s simply cheap horror.
So, can the safe mode transform the game into a better experience? Partially. On the one hand, it´s certainly a great idea to get rid of those stealth sections, to make it more accessible for newcomers or people like me. By removing the third layer of its horror, SOMA begins to heavily rely on the scripted events or sounds, combined with the great atmosphere and puzzles and because of those aspects, it manages to stay damn scary. On the other hand, Frictional Games seemingly didn´t do too much, to let the safe mode feel consistent. During mentioned stealth levels, the enemies may not attack the player but still exist, wandering around, doing nothing, even though they clearly attacked us in the previous scripted events. Additionally, the levels still play like before, forcing us to search for buttons or slow turning wheels, without any thread. As a result the game feels incredible inconsistent in those situations, throwing everything overboard what it built up with its atmosphere.
Was SOMA worth the Xbox One release and safe mode after two years? Well, actually yes, to a certain degree. Its story and atmosphere work as great as ever, delivering a captivating mystery set in an interesting environments, able to truly grab the player and never let go. Unfortunately, the main problem, its heavy reliance on cheap terror horror remains the deciding factor. Anyone who enjoyed Outlast or Amnesia probably picked it up already but for anyone unsure, like me, the safe mode might transform SOMA into a way more enjoyable experience. Yet, at the same time the design wasn´t altered, letting it feel like a half-assed move, dragged down by self-created contradictions. Ultimately, Frictional Games still made a really good game here but which may not be enjoyable by all.
[A Review Code was provided by Evolve PR/Frictional Games]