[This review explores a few themes that some might consider minor spoilers]
I've long pondered the concept of downloading consciousness, and preserving it within a digital space. It's a huge idea, but one that makes sense provided that 'souls' can be transferred into downloadable data. It could be a way for a scientific afterlife to live, with people existing past the death of the original mind. Now, I wouldn't often put these philosophical musings right at the beginning of a review like this, but that is exactly the kind of game SOMA is, so it feels fitting.
Developer Frictional Games are famous for their stellar work on Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which took the horror game scene by storm. It probably isn't hyperbole to say that that game has gone on to become amodern horror classic. It's non-combat situations, environmental puzzles and dangerous threats have been imitated so many times now, the the genre has grown (and possibly diluted) a great deal since Amnesia's initial release. It's been riffed on so many times now, that I had worries that SOMA might struggle to form its own identity in the modern context.
Now having spent 10 hours with the game, it's clear that those worries were unfounded. This is an incredible horror game, and if you are a fan of the genre, you absolutely must give it a go.
The game has you playing as Simon, a fairly average guy who wakes up out of time and place. He quickly figures out he has landed on an underground station called Pathos II, where it's clear something has gone very, very wrong. There is black goo dripping form the ceilings, dead bodies strewn across the floor and robots going through substantial identity crises, all populating the terrifying station. To go much further into the game's story would be to spoil it, but throughout the course of the main story, the narrative evolves beautifully, becoming a deep musing on what it means to be human both today and how that question will become more pertinent in the future. It's thrilling stuff.
It's worth noting that it certainly does take its time to get there though. During the first two or three hours of the title, I had a hard time getting into the atmosphere, with rather basic puzzles to solve and the scares being fairly lite. Once it gets going though it is a freight train of profound sci-fi ideas. Slowly the game spools out, allowing you decide out the happenstance of the station's current state. It really is a title that gets better the longer it goes.
As you explore the various portions of Pathos II, a large part of your time will be spent trying to figure out environmental puzzles. These can be pretty engaging, but at times, I found myself scrambling around before accidentally stumbling upon the answer. This could range from gratifying to genuinely frustrating, with the minuteness of the detail you needed to notice being a tad punishing at times. Luckily the story and environments themselves are fascinating enough to not deter too much and there is a enough variety in the puzzles that it never felt I was doing the same thing twice. While many of these genuinely enforced the story in intriguing ways, some of those more obscure conundrums hampered the flow and progress of the story.
The other half of the coin though is, of course, the horror part. These stations are festering with all kinds of technological monstrosities that are out to cause all manner of bodily harm to you. This is where the game's Amnesia roots shine, with the majority of these encounters being delightfully tense. There is quite a lot of creature variety too, meaning that over the course of trying to achieve your final objective, you'll vary from crawling, hiding or just genuinely running for your life. A lot of these sections are very well designed, keeping the areas tight with just enough opportunity to keep yourself safe, but not so much you lose the tension. It is effective horror game making, and cements Frictional as possibly the best in the industry at this kind of first person horror.
I'd be remiss to not mention just how stunning the environmental storytelling is in this game too. There seriously is some incredible work here done by the entire team, to really make this station feel tangible and infused with purpose. As you explore the heaving innards of this industrial, underwater catacomb, the history of what once was and what happened to the people on board is both poignant, and at times, heartbreaking. More than a couple times, the mere act of seeing a space, looking at its contents and making the connections of what happened there… it was moving in unsettling ways. Like trying to figure out a puzzle with pieces that don't fit, but make up the same picture, I was asked to configure them to create a grotesque image that burrowed deep into my human psyche. It's powerful stuff.
As I stated earlier though, the real power of this game comes in its ideas, which are both well considered and delightfully profound. These questions the games ask of the player are fascinating to contemplate, especially as we sit on the precipice of technological explosion. These questions of what humanity is, and our sense of identity as we explore new futuristic frontiers are consistently posed to players, but are never entirely concluded for them. There is a lot of space to consider where you stand on these musings yourself, which really is where the loneliness of the entire experience comes from. It is delightful, and I loved having them put forward to me. In a time where we are, for all intensive purposes, androids with digital avatars existing in social media spaces, have devices in our pocket that can tap into a database that sums up the entire human knowledge and we try to escape our own bodies with VR headsets, there hasn't been a better time to tell this story and explore the uncertain future we are wading into. The game also has a great sense of dramatising these ideas and deals with a wide range of emotions in clever and subtle ways. As you go, the dialogue and narration range from bleak and grotesque to hopeful and even a little funny. It really is just an incredibly sic-fi storytelling experience.
SOMA is a moving horror game, and one I genuinely believe will be cited in the horror genre pantheon for many years to come. This shouldn't be surprising from the developers of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but I believe it could become a classic like that title for entirely different reasons. While Amnesia was about a simplified story that became a staple for YouTubers screaming at being chased by eldritch horrors, SOMA is an entirely different proposition. While the scares are nothing to scoff at, the real draw here are the big questions and the environmental masterclass on display. This is considered and intelligent, both philosophically and, more importantly, emotionally. Frictional have cemented themselves as the best at what they do with SOMA, and you really owe it to yourself to try out. This is horror done right, and by my estimations, it's one of the greats of the genre in the last few years.