After the mediocrity that was Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the highly anticipated follow up to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a large portion of the Frictional Games fan-base began to question whether or not the company had lost its ability to scare audiences. This is despite the fact that Frictional Games had nothing to do with the development of A Machine for Pigs, but they went ahead and put their stamp on it as the publisher. Questions were raised, such as had they used up all of their horror creativity with previous Penumbra and Amnesia installments? Could they make a comeback from a massive let down? Only time would tell, and that time has now arrived in the form of a psychological sci-fi horror game called SOMA.
In 2015, main protagonist Simon Jarrett was involved in a car crash in Toronto, Canada. He sustained severe brain injuries that left the organ bleeding at all times, so he agrees to an experimental brain scan that's supposed to set him on the path to recovery; but instead after the scan is complete, he wakes up nearly 90 years in the future. The year is now 2104, and Simon soon discovers that he's in a deep sea research facility known as Pathos II. Early on, he also learns that a massive comet collided with Earth and set in motion the events of the apocalypse. Simon soon befriends a woman named Catherine, who sets him on a mission to launch a thing known as the ARK into space; the ARK houses the brain scans of multiple individuals, who can live on eternally as avatars within a virtual paradise on the ARK, so long as the device continues existing.
Out of the 9-10 possible hours of gameplay, there are only a small handful of events that involve "monsters" and those events can be separated into two categories; chase sequences and stealth scenarios. Every enemy that you encounter will either be blind with subhuman hearing, or supply you with no option but to run for your life. If you do happen to upset a foe who is meant to be snuck past, he will chase you down and hit you. If you're hit once, you simply black out and wake up where you left off, but your vision is left obscured; if the monster hits you again, it's game over and you're back to your last save point. These enemies are faster than you are, and as such you cannot simply run in a straight line and expect to get away; rather you need to find some corner to flee into and hide.
The mechanics for SOMA are very simple. If you've gotten hit by a monster, you'll need to find a glowing alien pod like thing, which will clear up your distorted vision and limp that you gain after sustaining an injury. When walking, crouching is of course quieter than standing, and is the preferred method of not getting your face bashed in by some moss and barnacle covered entity. Running and staying in the light is great for bypassing massive fish monsters who want to eat your skin. And not looking in the direction of a crying, sobbing alien woman will keep you alive to see another day. I'm really not sure why so many people and curators are deeming this title as "survival horror", because it simply isn't. If hiding and evading enemies is what classifies it as such, then Outlast, Amnesia, and Penumbra would all be considered survival horror as well. The only "survival" aspect is, well, healing yourself.
As sad as I am to say this, I wasn't scared at all during my time with SOMA. There's just something about the enemies that isn't particularly frightening in the least, but I really couldn't place my finger on why. I'm normally a sucker for chase sequences, I lose my cool, scream like a little girl, pause the game multiple times, and overall try not to have a breakdown. Towards the end of the game it felt like there were a lot of these chase scenes, to which I never even so much as sat on the edge of my seat. It very much suffers from the Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs syndrome when it comes to its horror aspect. However, what this game doesn't have in terms of scare factors, it makes up for with an amazing story and atmosphere; something that A Machine for Pigs could never accomplish.
A very strong bond is born between Catherine and Simon, even though Catherine can only communicate to you by means of your Omnitool when it's plugged in. The two become fairly close, and she's the only person that you communicate throughout the entire game. Since she's not always plugged in and available, there's an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness that increases tenfold by knowing that you could in fact be the last person on Earth. The deep, cumbersome sea doesn't help to alleviate this anxiety, either; it only makes matters worse once you descend further into the abyss. During the times that you're able to venture out of the Pathos II facilities and into the ocean, you can actually almost feel the crushing pressure thanks to not only the visuals, but also the overwhelming audio. I strongly recommend playing this game with a headset on to get the full immersive experience.
It's important to explore in SOMA, so that you take in as much of the storyline as possible. There are computer terminals with audio and text logs to check out, along with dead bodies that Simon can telepathically tap in to so that he can hear what happened during their last moments of life. You'll become acquainted with many of the last members of the Pathos II through their deaths, often learning about them before you end up stumbling upon their bodies. You'll want to keep going not only to find out what happens to Simon and Catherine, but what has become of the other crew members. The narrative is very deep, thought provoking, and engaging through the entire game, and it'll leave you craving more by the end.
To tie everything off, the title has some incredible visuals that are extremely well optimized. I found that I was able to maintain an FPS rate of between 70-115 consistently no matter what area I was in; including the outside, underwater sections that are the most visually stunning. You will explore lavishly detailed areas from overgrown, seaweed ridden facilities to rust covered, barnacle laden corridors, a very realistic ocean floor, to deeper depths of the ocean that are still unknown to this day. There are also plenty of gore-soaked rooms to appease most horror fanatics. Quite honestly, SOMA looks a lot like Bioshock, but plays like a heavily interactive walking simulator that uses monster evasion for puzzles.
Even though Frictional Games still haven't made a comeback with a game as strong in horror presence as that of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it's good to be able to say that SOMA is a solid entry into their catalog of terror. While SOMA may not send you into a frenzied panic whenever a monster is present, it can sure send a good ol' tingle up the spine and goosebumps down the arms when the reality of the story begins to sink in. After all, what could be more horrific than potentially being the last entity on Earth, who is somewhere deep down in the depths of the unexplored ocean? The ending is also spectacular, and something to look forward to progressing towards. Overall, SOMA is an amazing atmospheric, narrative experience that shouldn't be passed up; just don't go in expecting to be terrified.Rating: 5.0/5.0 - An astonishing achievement, this game must be played.
The Horror Network
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