SOMA probably isn’t the game you were expecting it to be. It’s not set in space, as we all assumed from early teases, but deep under the sea — an environment we take for granted as terrestrial and familiar, but proves just as alien. SOMA marks a shift for developer Frictional Games into the strange and unfamiliar, with a new setting and new vibe. But as it pushes its storytelling forward into something more meaningful than its past work with Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Penumbra series, Frictional finds itself unable to do the same with its gameplay style and SOMA suffers as a result. As a narrative piece, SOMA is excellent, filled with thought-provoking questions about the nature and limits of humanity, but as a game, SOMA feels like a relic.
SOMA puts you in the shoes of Simon Jarrett, a man who wakes up in the nightmarish underwater research station of PATHOS-II. Though Simon doesn’t know how or why he’s there, it’s not through the familiar amnesia trope that Frictional has already done to death in its previous games; instead, the developer opts to play with narrative structure and player perceptions in ambitious ways that make it easy to relate with Simon’s situation. On his way through PATHOS-II, Simon finds twisted monsters, robots that think they’re human, and Catherine, an AI that tries to help him make sense of it all. The interplay between Simon and Catherine is what makes up the bulk of the story here and it’s very well done. They needle each other about what it really means to be human and argue about what actions to take in specific scenarios, but ultimately it’s you who have the final word.
The decisions in SOMA are similar to the ones you’ll make in other games, but they mean so much more here. Not in the sense that they radically change the story like an Until Dawn, but in that they demand you to think about what the game is asking you to do in a philosophical sense, completely removed from “what gameplay benefit will it have for me as a player?” In BioShock, another provocative undersea adventure, you had to choose between saving the warped Little Sisters or harvesting them for your own gain.
While that’s an interesting decision on its own in determining how far you’re willing to go and what you’re willing to do in a quest for greater power, the mechanical gameplay ramifications actually cheapen those decisions by turning them into an exchange. Even if you didn’t harvest the Little Sisters for power, you were still rewarded nonetheless so as to not upset the game’s balance on your way to one of three ending cut scenes depending on how you did. The same goes for inFAMOUS and nearly every other game in that style, but not for SOMA: your decisions are for you and you alone. SOMA asks you to make decisions based on hypothetical questions I’ve thought about on and off for years, and the decisions I made here will stick with me for a long time.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the rest of SOMA‘s gameplay is such a drag. Like past Frictional games, you’re strictly an explorer here: finding keys for doors, reading documents and solving the occasional puzzle. Though you will encounter enemies now and again, there’s no combat and few mechanics to speak of in general beyond Frictional’s standard “don’t look at the monster” restriction. Your agency in the world is essentially wrapped up in your ability to lightly toss objects a few feet to distract an enemy and then crouch-walk in the other direction. It’s remarkably similar to Alien: Isolation in its scenarios: you’ll enter a futuristic office area with several doors and corridors to explore and one hostile monster to serve as the threat.
But whereas Isolation‘s alien actually hunted dynamically, making every step feel dangerous, SOMA‘s monsters simply shuffle back and forth endlessly on pre-made paths and all you have to do is wait for an opening to mosey on past. Whereas Isolation armed players with a variety of nonlethal and lethal (read: loud and ineffective) tools to deal with situations, SOMA offers nothing and becomes incredibly dull as a result. While Isolation was by no means a perfect game, screwing up and hearing the alien’s snarl just before it lunged at you was always a terrifying experience; screwing up in SOMA often means getting cornered in a narrow hallway as a monster you’re not supposed to look at stumbles toward you, so you just stare at a wall until it knocks you over. That’s not scary; that’s boring.
More unfortunate are the myriad of technical issues that mar the experience on PlayStation 4. While the game has more than its fair share of visual glitches and frame rate hiccups, SOMA‘s worst problem is undoubtedly the incessant loads. There aren’t any predetermined load screens between levels in SOMA, but on PS4, those loads instead happen during gameplay at seemingly random times in ways that really do wonders to break your sense of place in SOMA‘s world. The game will pause to load when entering a new area, when opening a door, or even a few times standing in place looking around. In one of the final areas, I opened a door and the game came to a crashing halt that required a force quit.
SOMA is at its best when it’s challenging you on a philosophical level rather than on a mechanical one. As a horror game, SOMA feels old and archaic. It isn’t especially frightening or even satisfying to play, but the questions it raises are worth exploring and make it worthwhile regardless. It’s an adventure that will stay with you as you roll the fates of Simon and Catherine around in your head long after the credits have rolled. Due to the current state of the PS4 version, however, if you’re going to play SOMA, either wait to see if it gets patched or play it on PC instead.