Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Fric­tional Games For­mat PC, PS4 Re­lease Out now



Sur­vival-hor­ror is, like many sub­genre names, a vague la­bel. Sur­vival is the goal of most games, af­ter all, and di­min­ish­ingly few are the hor­ror ef­forts that don’t in­duce fear through the threat of death. While Soma will in­evitably be badged up this way, Fric­tional has con­jured up a po­tent ad­ven­ture that’s a great deal more than the sum of its body parts. Like Fric­tional’s past works, Penum­bra and Am­ne­sia,

Soma rev­els in the tac­til­ity of its en­vi­ron­ments and builds its set-pieces around in­scrutable ter­rors. But it goes fur­ther by in­tro­duc­ing a steak of play­fully dark hu­mour, used as a ten­sion re­lease valve as of­ten as it is to un­der­score the un­set­tling ideas at its story’s heart. It ru­mi­nates on grand, trou­bling eth­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions with un­com­mon ma­tu­rity. And it poses moral quan­daries with real bite, but never stoops to con­grat­u­late or ad­mon­ish you for your choices.

It’s a re­mark­ably con­fi­dent step change for a stu­dio that has, up un­til now, fo­cused its cre­ative en­er­gies en­tirely on find­ing clever ways to ter­rify. Soma’s re­mit is con­sid­er­ably broader and, as such, it has the po­ten­tial to find it­self in the po­si­tion of both dis­ap­point­ing hor­ror fa­nat­ics and scar­ing off ad­ven­ture fans. But this pre­car­i­ous bal­anc­ing act re­sults in a game that bet­ter echoes the gal­lows-hu­mour ca­ma­raderie and nar­ra­tive beats of Hol­ly­wood’s great­est sci-fi hor­ror films than any of its peers, in­clud­ing the bril­liantly frightening – but rather po-faced – Alien: Iso­la­tion. (In fact, Soma in­cludes an Aliens ref­er­ence as evoca­tive as any­thing in The Cre­ative As­sem­bly’s game.)

Soma at­tempts to pull off a sim­i­lar sleight of hand with its AI, too, with more mixed suc­cess. Rather than rely on a sin­gle enigmatic foe, Fric­tional de­ploys a se­ries of cor­ri­dor-stalk­ing aber­ra­tions, each with its own be­hav­iours. It’s a con­certed ef­fort to avoid the ero­sion of jit­ters that Am­ne­sia suf­fered from once you learned the tricks em­ployed to make its crea­tures ap­pear so threat­en­ing, but while Soma keeps you guess­ing, it doesn’t wholly avoid fall­ing into the same trap.

The best of Soma’s mob of hor­rors is a crea­ture that riffs on Am­ne­sia’s Gath­er­ers. It wears what looks like a div­ing hel­met, brightly il­lu­mi­nated from the in­side, and look­ing at it di­rectly vi­o­lently dis­torts the screen. You must try to keep it in the cor­ner of your vi­sion (though it’s more of­ten di­rectly be­hind you as you flee into the next room in the hope of find­ing some­where to hide) in or­der to keep track of it. It’s a fan­tas­tic cre­ation that’s set loose on you be­fore you’ve had a chance to men­tally map the ar­eas it haunts, com­pound­ing the sense of panic you feel as you try to deal with it.

At the other end of the spec­trum is a tu­mor­ous lump like a walk­ing mass of doner meat. De­spite its silly ap­pear­ance, it’s still a threat­en­ing propo­si­tion ini­tially. But the sec­tions in which you en­counter it af­ford too many op­por­tu­ni­ties to di­rectly ob­serve it, ex­pos­ing rudi­men­tary pathfind­ing that falls far short of the stan­dards of Iso­la­tion’s mer­ci­less hunter. Most of Soma’s en­e­mies are fond of try­ing to catch out sneak­ing play­ers by turn­ing around un­ex­pect­edly just af­ter they set off down a cor­ri­dor. It hap­pens so of­ten you’ll reg­u­larly be trapped in a hid­ing place for min­utes at a time, and only some of the crea­tures con­sis­tently re­spond to the noise of, say, a tossed glass bot­tle. Soma’s most ef­fec­tive cre­ations more than make up for its less suc­cess­ful ones, but with­out the abil­ity to cower in cup­boards, boxes or even un­der ta­bles, the hide-and-seek stealth sec­tions can feel less dy­namic than those found in some of the game’s con­tem­po­raries. Fric­tional at­tempts to lessen frus­tra­tions by of­fer­ing you a sec­ond chance if you’re caught, al­beit one that comes with clouded vi­sion and a be­lea­guer­ing limp, but meet with cap­ture a sec­ond time and you’re scup­pered. Even more gen­er­ously, there’s a way to re­store your health – one so tightly bound to the ex­pertly un­furled plot that we can’t de­scribe it with­out spoil­ing things – and nearby en­e­mies will give their pres­ence away with a range of gut­tural noises and the flick­er­ing screen dis­tor­tions that their prox­im­ity in­duces. It’s far from a per­fect setup, but it’s a for­giv­ing one that in­tro­duces a cou­ple of ad­di­tional safety nets be­tween you and the al­ready gen­er­ous check­point­ing sys­tem.

While mem­o­rable, the in­fre­quent en­emy en­coun­ters are the weak­est as­pect of Soma. The game is at its best when you’re left to wan­der (and, in­deed, won­der) about the dank, leaky com­pounds that make up Pathos-II, the ap­par­ently aban­doned deep-sea sci­ence base in which the game is set. Ev­ery space feels like it has a prac­ti­cal pur­pose, and en­vi­ron­ments con­tin­u­ally yield ev­i­dence that al­ludes to the lives of those who used to live and work in this un­fa­mil­iar, dan­ger­ous space. The game draws you in fur­ther by re­quir­ing that you use a com­bi­na­tion of trig­ger and ana­logue stick to pull open draw­ers, throw huge switches to pres­surise air­locks, and plug heavy-duty ca­bles into ma­chin­ery. This well-tele­graphed pal­pa­bil­ity en­riches each en­vi­ron­men­tal puz­zle and com­po­nen­try fetchquest and adds ten­sion as the loud clanks of your in­ter­ac­tions threaten to at­tract un­wel­come at­ten­tion. There are also mo­ments of real poignancy, and a cou­ple of the de­ci­sions we were asked to make along the way, al­though hav­ing no bear­ing on the way the game plays out, left us reel­ing.

That Soma’s AI can’t quite live up to the as­sured poise of the rest of the game is in­evitably dis­ap­point­ing, but then it’s also in­dica­tive of the spec­tac­u­larly high stan­dard of world-build­ing and sto­ry­telling that’s on dis­play here. Soma is con­sis­tently as­ton­ish­ing, and no mon­ster, how­ever un­set­tling its de­sign, could ever hope to match the deeper psy­cho­log­i­cal un­ease brought about by the game’s bril­liant premise.

The en­emy en­coun­ters are the weak­est as­pect of Soma. The game is at its best when you’re left to wan­der about

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