SOMA Playstation 4 Review

What does it mean to be human? Introspective science-fiction stories has always found different ways to approach this very potent idea, especially as it becomes more potent as time goes on. The Mass Effect series had the fate of a sentient machine race showing human quality. Deus Ex philosophically ponders the definition of being human while technology continues to augment and improve the average human’s physical and mental facilities. Now, there is SOMA, an existential first-person horror game taking serious inspiration from Philip K. Dick’s brand of sci-fi developed by the twisted minds behind the popular and terrifying Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

And if you read that last sentence thinking that this game was going to be yet another YouTube bait bit of jumpscares with some robots involved, prepare to be surprised.

Gameplay

You are Simon Jarrett, an average man living in Canada who works at a bookstore. After a serious car crash several months ago, he goes to a doctor’s office for a brainscan which is where everything goes wrong. He wakes up some unknown time later in a mysterious underwater scientific research complex called PATHOS-II where some unknown catastrophe has killed the staff and has blown out the power. An unknown alien substance has begun to form on the walls, robots and machines are speaking with human voices completely unaware of their synthetic form, and deformed beings are roaming the halls attacking anything that moves. If Simon wants to figure out why he has been abducted to PATHOS-II, he’ll have to restore its systems, find an escape, and try not to die.

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If you’ve played Amnesia, chances are you’ll experience some deja vu playing SOMA. You’ll spend the majority of your time wandering through insanely claustrophobic environments hunting for keys and solving puzzles while avoiding monsters with the standard stealth tricks of crouching, hiding, and throwing objects for distractions. There are some odd control growing pains like using the right trigger and right analogue stick to pick up objects and rotate them, but after a while they become tolerable.

But what’s preciously exceptional about SOMA is how it explores its themes in a mature and contemplative manner. It does a brilliant job of setting up a scenario and just asks the big questions while introducing wrinkles. Heck, at one point I found a literal survey that I was able to fill out about how I feel about artficial simulations and the quantification of the human soul and because of the unsettling things I had seen up to this point, every single question added a new level of dread to the proceedings. Where similar games like The Talos Principle comes off as preachy with similar themes, SOMA never felt like it was talking down or doing anything for shock. And it’s because of this sincerity that it’s atmosphere and tone has some of the most potently oppressive vignettes in horror I’ve played this year, one that doesn’t so much get your heart running as get under your skin and burrow into your mind.

It’s sad then that the moments where you have to hide from monsters feels so token and at odds with the rest of the presentation. Aesthetically they gel, think H.R. Gigar after eating a hardware manual, but when the monster that kills you if you stare directly at it shows up, basically a technobabble version of the sanity mechanic from Amnesia, it really begins to clash. Doubly so when you discover how easy it is to trick and avoid the shambling, glowing techno creatures and you find yourself wishing they didn’t keep getting in the way of the next bit of story. By the time I was halfway through the game when a monster arrived my first reflex was to roll my eyes and click into stealth mode, not be taken off-guard.

There’s also a noticeable lack of investment when it comes to surviving their assault. The creatures can easily be maneuvered around and distracted, but eventually one will spot you and you’ll have to run. However, instead of a game over happening, you are merely beaten down where you are and they go back to their patrol. Afterwards you basically get a second chance to get past, albeit with a limp and some blurry vision. This would be acceptable if the monsters were notably aggressive or tricky, but a lot of their tricks and methods are very staid and predictable that it just reinforces how out-of-place they feel.

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Finally, while some of the puzzles are quite basic and straightforward, there were a few that were quite esoteric. There was one right at the beginning that kept me stumped for somewhere north of an hour until I just started guessing the solution. I got lucky. The logic evens out after this spike, but it can really interrupt what should have been a rock solid exercise in tension.

Graphics

SOMA doesn’t exactly run well on PS4. It looks nice enough, character models and texture quality is solid, if not cutting edge, framerate is serviceable and environmental effects do their job. But, a lot of this good is chopped up by loading screens that interrupt the flow of the game. And they pop up very often, sometimes inbetween five minute sections of just dialogue occuring, making it quite distracting.

Sound

The audio work here is exactly what you’d expect from a horror game doing everything right. Just the right use of knocks and unusual sounds to keep you on edge while not being overbearing, sharp and harsh visceral noises like shattering glass, a protagonist that’s voiced to be just enough of an audience surrogate to empathize with him. All of the boxes are checked.

Value

SOMA is an oddity in many ways. I have nothing but praise for how it handles its writing and characters, all of which maintain a juggling act of very intriguing high-minded ideas but to discuss them would take up a small book. Things build up to a pretty impressive climax, but the monster encounters inbetween weigh it down. In terms of a conventional video game with challenges and failure states, SOMA is practically a farce; a game that would be great if the actual play was better.

Yet I cannot deny that a lot of the things it explores are quite compelling. Much like other minimalist experiences like Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, SOMA works best as an ambient experience, letting things sink in and grow as you move and unravel more of a mystery. And it’s at its worst when it feels obligated to put a baddy in the way of that experience.

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Conclusion

SOMA isn’t an intense thrill ride by any stretch. But what it is is a pretty disturbing and insightful look into the measure of humanity and what it means in the grand scheme of things. If you can put up with some obligatory stealth sections and some insistent loading screens, give this one a look.

aag 8 out of 10

Pros:

  • Great Disturbing Atmosphere
  • Decent Puzzle and Stealth Mechanics
  • Solid Writing

Cons:

  • Too Many Loading Screens
  • Easy and Forgettable Monster Encounters
  • Some Obtuse Puzzles

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