SOMA (Xbox One Review)
Stealth and horror genre go hand in hand, like Samuel L. Jackson and Tarantino movies. It just works, regardless of the setting. With the player’s ever building stress levels from trying to remain undetected and the pressure to hold your nerve, SOMA forces you to play it by ear–literally. Laying eyes on the accursed creatures of SOMA’s rapture harms the player, encouraging a stricter form of stealth gameplay while elevating the player’s anxiety: a form of stealth gameplay that is harder to overcome.
You play as Simon Jarrett, an everyman seemingly forced into compromising predicaments, moral choices, and a whole lot of dark corridors filled with manic robots. He is trapped under the sea in a government research base known as Pathos-II, long abandoned and ravaged by time. Simon is seemingly out of sorts with the world he inhabits and needs to figure out what happened at Pathos-II. Initially, most of the plot and narrative is dished out in data entries on monitors and notepads–like most typical atmospheric adventure games–but quickly ups the ante by introducing characters that raise alarming questions. These new characters will have you second guessing yourself with every decision you make. But the most noteworthy story element is Simon’s interactions with a singular, more distinguished, member of Pathos-II: a researcher named Catherine. Dialogue feels genuine and sincere, as Catherine’s character was not built to be a throwaway trope–unlike most male/female relationships in video games–but more of a crutch for the player’s conscious decisions and understandings of the environment and plot, making them feel uncommonly cognizant and authentic.
It’s hard to really delve into the depths of what makes SOMA’s narrative so great without spoiling its secrets. The limited pool of characters in SOMA mesh well in a fabric of palpable verity, breaking the wall between the player and the game. Through its characters, you are more involved as part of the experience – a feat few other games master.
Although SOMA straddles the lines between stealth and horror, a large portion of its gameplay revolves around walking about and discovering the plot. You’ll venture from room to room, discovering oddities and clues to the enigma that is Pathos-II. Not to repudiate the impact a good walking simulator can have, mind you. SOMA keeps things tight knit and focused, while planting a few puzzling roadblocks here and there to mix up the gameplay. Players can wander through the subterranean depths of Pathos-II, out onto the ocean floor and beyond. You can even explore the dark abyss of the sea. All of which is created with masterful detail, from the ocean bed to the grimy, industrial fillings of Pathos-II’s several research sites. But few areas are left fleeting as you are absconded upon by the denizens of the deep.
Rogue A.I. and human/robot hybrids haunt the corridors of SOMA’s dilapidated world. Though their figure’s bizarre and twisted, it’s their sound design that draws out fear from the player. Hearing the wailing of an enemy is your only means of navigation without conflict. Avoiding enemies solely by the might of your auditory senses is a unique gameplay twist, as catching a glimpse of you enemy creates a static feedback effect that damages you — similar to Frictional Games’ other masterpiece, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. However, this unique twist has its downsides, as only a few enemies have recognisable noises. Footsteps are near silent, so you can never tell how close they are, nor when they stop their wailing for a second or two and go silent. There will definitely be times where you are none the wiser to your enemy’s location thanks to a lack of certain audio cues.
Granted that this form of audio navigation is not to your liking, there is a Safe Mode integrated into the Xbox One version of SOMA. This mode disables all interaction and instances of enemies, letting players off the hook to cruise around Pathos-II at their own leisure. While I can see the benefit to Safe Mode — especially for those with a nervous disposition — removing all traces of immediate threat or danger can impact a games delivery. SOMA was designed to have a threatening element to it and removing such an entity lessens the impact of SOMA as a whole. But then again, SOMA‘s main selling point is its story, and if tweaking the gameplay is necessary for a larger audience to enjoy your work, then I’m all for it.
‘Thought provoking’ may be the best way to describe my overall experience with SOMA. With the story being expertly delivered through eloquent voice acting and dialogue, environmental design, and questionable moral choices. SOMA stands out as a deft lesson in storytelling, which many developers should learn from. I’d highly recommend trying SOMA for anyone and everyone.