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Frictional’s ‘SOMA’ leaves you with a sinking feeling

SOMA


SOMA

Developed by Frictional Games
Published by Frictional Games
Available on Windows, OSX, Linux, PS4

Exploring the mechanics of horror seems to be Frictional’s mission given the almost complete stylistic backflip they have taken with their latest game, SOMA.

The majority of SOMA is set in and around the futuristic underwater research facility PATHOS-2 after an apparent AI takeover. Frictional’s treatment of WAU, the AI responsible for the majority of what is found in game, echoes fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s vision of Robot-as-Menace. Intentional or not this brings about a fantastic evolution in the player’s understanding of WAU’s antagonistic motivation behind what it has done to the research facility, the people within, and the surrounding environment.

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After SOMA‘s introduction, which acts as a tutorial without explicitly saying so and introduces the backstory of the player’s character, Simon, returning fans of Frictional’s work will initially believe that they are playing what is essentially Amnesia: The Dark Descent with a new skin. This couldn’t be further from the truth but, unfortunately, it takes an hour or two of gameplay for the deeper horror to begin having an effect. While not as prominent in SOMA as they are in quite a few other games these days, the jump scares that do exist are all the more effective for the auditory and visual distortion that they come with.

The chunk of SOMA‘s awe-inspiring dread comes from the story itself and the results of decisions that have been made by people both dead, and questionably alive. It’s just a shame that the more outstanding of these themes are so directly referenced within the game, with a few characters going so far as to mention the questions that are raised organically through playing word for word, through audio logs or actual conversation. It detracts from the feeling of satisfaction that arises as you piece together what they were attempting to communicate by yourself.

SOMA tells it’s story through multiple means. Audio logs that detail the processes of the scientists and their relationships are found on computers throughout each of the facilities stations. Post-it notes (which have apparently stood the test of time), photos, and documents are scattered throughout offices and living quarters, and the game’s main supporting lead, Catherine, is always on hand to elaborate on either your situation or what may have happened in an area you are now exploring. This diversity is always present and allows the player to pick and choose how much of the story they want to uncover without making it a necessary burden.

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Immersion within SOMA can be a little bit hit-and-miss. The problem being that the distortion effects don’t particularly make contextual sense until you either figure out precisely what has happened to Simon or you are told what has happened by Catherine. On the other hand where the immersion does hit, it really packs a punch. The sound effects are startlingly convincing. The result of many hours of attention to detail and work that sets the standard to ridiculous levels. Environmental interactions such as plastic bottles and tin cans rolling after you’ve kicked them or the motion of water around you as you walk across the sea floor are all so accurate that playing with it all for a little while is almost irresistible.

SOMA also makes it clear that Frictional are finally moving beyond using physics-based puzzles. While not overly difficult a lot of them require some lateral thinking and, at some points, a willingness to push yourself into actions that could be considered beyond cruel. In this manner they’ve extended the horror of SOMA not only to hiding from monstrous beings but to becoming one yourself in a way. Most of the major decisions made are forced moral dilemmas and will leave you wondering if the end goal is really worth the sacrifices that have to be made, or, if they truly are sacrifices at all once you consider the nitty gritty details of what you are objectively doing. Frictional’s team has always been particularly good at crafting a story. SOMA has allowed them to play with the essence of humanity itself and they have taken it down a long, lonely path.

Although compared to their past work it can be a little self-indulgent at times, SOMA shows that Frictional still stands as a paragon of horror gaming and is definitely a worthwhile investment of time.


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