What is it to be human? Can you still be human if you no longer inhabit your own body? What about a digital copy of yourself – if such a thing were possible? What then? Would they still be you, and would you be the same as them? Or do they become a fundamentally different person, living their own life and forming their own unique memories? SOMA asks all these questions and more over the course of Frictional Games’ latest survival horror game, but not without putting your nerves through the shredder first as you explore the sunken depths of humanity’s last stronghold.
Of course, anyone who’s played a single Bioshock game will feel Rapture’shadow bubbling up beneath the surface of SOMA’s Pathos-II, but Frictional’s subterranean ruin is a much lonelier, more desolate place than the art deco stylings of Irrational’s watery dystopia. Here, what little remained of its post-apocalyptic society has been scrubbed and tortured out of existence by a handful of strange mechanical monsters, which now stalk the empty hallways with their terrifying screams and eerie, choking death rattles.
^ As you progress through Pathos-II, you’ll often need to venture outside to the ocean floor to get to the next sub-station
Fortunately, each one only lumbers round its own distinct territory, providing a welcome relief from the constant threat of spawning enemies in Frictional’s earlier work, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. However, there’s still a shared genealogy between both sets of creatures, as once again Frictional reprises its unique idea of forcing players to look away from their foe in order to remain unseen. Likewise, the screen will flicker upon their approach, telegraphing their rough location so you know exactly how close they are to delivering a swift, fatal punch to your cranium.
Mechanically, then, SOMA hasn’t evolved much past its predecessor, as that one fundamental idea of turning your back is often your only method of escaping your foes unscathed. It’s still incredibly effective, and the monsters’ increased sensitivity to sound this time does occasionally make for some rather tense battles of wit as you try activating clunking, whirring doors and switches while remaining hidden in the shadows.
^ Not all the creatures in Pathos-II wish you harm, but you’ll often have to do some pretty horrible things to them to get to your next goal
However, when you eventually realise that’s your only way of dealing with these creatures, any feeling of fear or genuine horror soon wanes. SOMA does occasionally indulge in a few jump-scares, but they’re few and far between, so you’re often left with nothing but the stress of the situation at hand (not to mention the game’s brilliantly menacing soundtrack) to maintain the tension.
Stress still keeps the adrenaline going, but it can also lean dangerously close to frustration at times, especially when a handle of monsters always seem to find you no matter what tactic you attempt to fool them with. Likewise, a couple of rather obtuse puzzles in calmer sections of the game seem to have no rhyme or reason to them at all, which is disappointing when the rest of SOMA’s situational puzzles are so well signposted by the surrounding scenery.
^ SOMA’s monsters come in all shapes and sizes, but look at them too long and you’ll draw attention to yourself
If anything, SOMA strips Amnesia right back to its most basic principals, as there’s no longer any need to manage your ever-dwindling sanity levels, or help keep the shadows at bay by lighting candles and lanterns. However, while SOMA may not be a great technical evolution of Frictional’s previous titles, its story-telling is in a class of its own.
I’d be loathe to spoil any details, but its intelligent central debate surrounding the idea of self and personhood is absolutely enthralling. Additional layers of light and shadow are provided by old photos, documents, computer logs and audio diaries, which fill in the more immediate narrative of exactly what happened on Pathos-II before your unexpected arrival, but it’s the moments where you get to exercise your understanding of the game’s philosophies that it all begins to take shape.
^ You’ll want to read every computer screen in Pathos-II, as logs made by previous users reveal telling details about the game’s wider story
Here, you must decide the fate of a handful of individuals you’ve encountered along the way. There’s no reward or consequence for choosing one side of the fence over another, which some might find a little anti-climatic given the circumstances, but each choice will have you questioning the very idea of existence and what it means to be conscious and alive long after you’ve made the decision. For as you soon discover, you yourself are not quite who you think you are.
This is another of SOMA’s greatest strengths, as the terror of your situation isn’t maintained by deliberate suspense or arbitrary plot-twists. Instead, it only takes a couple of hours before you’re in near full possession of the facts, and it’s watching those principals unravel and play out over the next nine hours or so that makes SOMA a truly chilling tale of sci-fi horror.
On the surface, SOMA will no doubt feel a touch stale compared to Amnesia’s revolutionary take on the genre, but when it’s buoyed by such a staggering narrative, it has every right to stand alongside its predecessor as one of the most astute and gripping survival horror games of this generation. It comes recommended.