Without doubt the scariest game ever made is Frictional’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The Lovecraft-inspired story, the feeling of vulnerability, a sanity meter based on darkness, monsters you weren’t allowed to look at and sometimes couldn’t even see, and the ability to hide in wardrobes elevated it to the top of the class in terror. After Dear Esther developer The Chinese Room took the reins on Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs Frictional themselves have been hard at work on new IP SOMA, which can be summed up with the simple phrase “Bioshock meets Amnesia”. Here’s the point where I should back away and give Frictional my lunch money.
Amnesia meets Bioshock? Oh boy.
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The story is one of the best parts of SOMA, and I utterly refuse to spoil any of it. Keeping things short you play as Simon Jarrett, who awakes in a deep sea facility with no memory of how he got there, but it becomes obvious that something has gone very wrong. There’s no people around and killer robots, killer monsters, and killer robot monsters roam both the halls and the seabed. There’s a lot of optional lore to find that really builds the world and gives you a glimpse into what went wrong. A lot may have to do with the AI that controls the facility going nuts, but there’s clearly something else at work.
So far, so Bioshock, System Shock, Doom 3 or any number of similar games. SOMA however diverges from expected paths immediately, and I really wish I could have a good ol’ conversation about how but you’ll just have to trust me: the storyline in SOMA is great, compelling, and unfolds naturally and believably. Not to mention terrifyingly. Without spoiling things, we’ll just say that Simon does not have amnesia (such an overused trope in videogames) and that his interactions with his sort-of companion Catherine make for some of the most natural conversations in videogames, with even moments of levity to lighten the tension. Frictional also really dig into deep moral and philosophical discussions in a way I totally didn’t expect, but greatly appreciate. Not many horror games make you think while they’re throwing indestructible ghosts at you.
Some of the underwater views are quite lovely, before you meet monsters that try to rip out your eyes
And those indestructible ghosts do come, and how. I’m going to say that I personally do not think that SOMA is as scary as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but it does get close. At the start it’s merely creepy and a bit nerve-wracking, and the initial monsters proving easily avoidable, but a few hours in we’re introduced to more formidable and terrifying foes. A derelict waterlogged ship where you’re being hunted by what I call “the Sight Monster” and a low visibility trek on the bottom of an abyss are the scary highlights. However I don’t know if I’m just more resistant to scares after Amnesia but I was more enthralled by the mystery of SOMA rather than its horror. I was still enthralled, but in a different way than I expected. Still, the horror was definitely high class, and a lot of it doesn’t involve monsters.
There’s a couple of features though that defines it as a Frictional title rather than just a gunless Bioshock (although despite the setting it feels closer to System Shock, with all the humans being roboticised or monsters, more of a scientific research facility vibe than a city, and a crazy AI being at the root of the problems). First is the entirely mouse-driven control system that allows the player to pick up and examine anything and move objects with gestures, which was great in the first Penumbra and is still great now.
Don't talk to it. It just makes things more difficult
Second is that beyond avoiding hideous creatures and general exploration a lot of SOMA consists of puzzles. You do have to think of SOMA as an adventure game with horror elements, much like Frictional’s other titles. While these puzzles can occasionally fall into the “search every drawer until you find the key” trap the majority are straightforward and often interesting, with most of the work being examining the environment. We do acknowledge that there will be a fair number of horror game fans who will be put off by these puzzles as they slow things down, but they’re a huge improvement over Amnesia for sure. And Resident Evil too, come to think of it.
The building relationship between Simon and Catherine is one of SOMA's best features
My final thought before the verdict is how much of a quality product SOMA feels. The graphics aren’t quite P.T. level but they’re pretty great, especially all the underwater scenes which run rings around Bioshock. The sound design is cool too, creating a wonderfully oppressive atmosphere. The only minor complaints I have beyond it not being as pant-wetting as Amnesia are that it’s a little linear, and that initial loading times can be long. That’s it really, and the linear thing is in a Valve-style way of levels seeming huge but getting “guided” expertly through them. I only encountered one minor bug in my entire experience too, and that’ll probably be fixed by the time you read this. It ran perfectly in maximum graphics settings too. Suck it, Warner Bros and Ubisoft.
SOMA is a truly excellent gaming experience, with the only flaws coming from your own personal expectation. If you’re expecting a game as terrifying as Amnesia and without any adventure game-style puzzles to solve you might have some complaints, but SOMA is still scary, dripping with tension and heart-stopping moments, and it’s easier to find the items you need to solve puzzles than in Amnesia. It’s the story and world of SOMA that is the highlight though, with a compelling storyline that really digs into deep moral issues like “what makes you you” and “what does it mean to be human”. In the 10 or so hours it took me to finish SOMA I was hooked for the entire experience, from shocking beginning to one of the best game endings I’ve seen since Portal. SOMA will destroy you emotionally, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The beginning? The ending? For me it’s meeting the Sight Monster for the first time.
Deep, well-told storyline with complex moral issues and occasional levity when required.
Feels like a quality product, with good visuals and sound design.
Yes, it's bloody scary okay? And not just jump scares, the whole atmosphere is oppressive and dripping in tension.
Puzzles might put people off, but they can be stumbled through acceptably.