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