I’m going to start this review with a full disclosure: I was not able to fully complete Soma (or SOMA, as developer Frictional Games has labeled it) due to the presence of a bug that rendered the game impossible for me to complete. However, I progressed very far in the game, and was interested enough in the story to watch the rest of it unfold online, so I’m qualified to give the game a fair assessment.
Much like Frictional’s other voyages into horror, including the smash hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent, SOMA has you controlling a helpless protagonist in an unfamiliar environment, as he seeks out answers regarding his current predicament. At first glance, this seems like a run of the mill horror game story, but as the game progresses, the way it unfolds is seriously amazing. It’s unique, fascinating, and shockingly relevant to moral issues that may very well pop up in the near future of scientific developments.
The story is unique, fascinating, and shockingly relevant.
But man, it is not a good game.
SOMA tells a beautiful story, but as a game, it’s genuinely awful in a baffling way. It’s not that it’s bad in the same way that most bad games are, either. Besides one notable part, it’s not particularly buggy, it’s not unfair, and, again, the story is good. SOMA’s issue lies not with any of those, but in its core design, so it’s difficult to explain without some specific examples, which I’ve tried to keep spoiler free.
At the start of the game, you are given a few puzzles which involve using the physics engine to move things around and search for items in a room. This is easily the most entertaining part of the game, as you can pick up and throw almost anything here like it weighs nothing. Now, after these two brief puzzles, you find yourself locked in a room, with signs everywhere telling you about something called the Omnitool, with a slot for this Omnitool in a terminal by the door.
Alright cool, learn from the past puzzles and search for it, right?
Haha, no. SOMA doesn’t roll like that. You have to pick up a heavy object, and throw it through a window to escape, despite literally nothing up to this point (including other windows) being breakable, and no indicator that this is even possible. The Omnitool isn’t even in this room, and you won’t get it for quite a while.
There are a few strange design principles in SOMA.
SOMA suffers from quite a few strange design principles like this. The “horror” segments of the game almost exclusively take place in cramped underwater laboratories, with almost every corridor and room looking the same, and a truly awful lighting system that makes it impossible to see anything unless you fiddle with your gamma settings and crank screen brightness to the max.
The enemies, which almost only show up during these sections, pose nearly zero threat, because if they touch you, you just get hurt and then the enemy disappears for some reason. It’s not like health is rare either, as health recovery stations are incredibly numerous. Some lab sections have at least five(!) scattered around. The risk factor was so low that I often found myself just running right past (or into) them just to get rid of them so I could progress instead of waiting hours for them to move. The main purpose of these enemies seems to be to annoy the player, not scare them. Beyond maybe the first enemy in the game, their designs are not the least bit frightening (Especially the second enemy, who resembles a naked dude with a disco ball on his head). The scariest thing they do is play annoying static sound effects and induce an equally annoying screen tearing effect. One segment of the game has you fleeing down a series of stairs and hallways, but thanks to the awful lighting and screen tearing, this is made needlessly difficult, as you can’t even figure out what’s going on half the time.
These laboratory slogs are broken up by segments where you traverse the open ocean floor, which are absolutely incredible compared to the “scary” sections. These areas have actual puzzles, exploration, lore dumps, a cute robot companion, and beautiful scenery design. It doesn’t even feel like the same game. THESE segments should have been the whole game, they’re awesome. I want to play more of these! Instead, this only makes the horror segments even more awful. After a beautiful ocean floor journey, you’re thrust back into dark hallway-land, for more groan-inducingly bad cat and mouse games.
It was in one of these exact scenarios that my SOMA experience ended. I had just arrived in another lab segment, fresh from the ocean floor, and began running down a hallway, hugging the wall, when I got stuck. Clipped into the wall. I struggled for a while, trying to free myself, and then the game autosaved. No matter how many times I reloaded the game, I was rendered immobile, and could not progress.
I clipped into a wall. The game saved. I couldn’t progress.
Despite that though, the story until then kept me invested enough to spend my time not only watching the last half an hour or so of the game I missed, but doing a lot more research on the lore and world. I didn’t even like the game much, but SOMA is weird that way. Do I hate it?
No. I give SOMA a resounding 5/10.
I think at least half the game is done amazingly well. The other half is abysmal to play through. It feels like SOMA is two games made by two separate teams, but clumsily mashed together. Playing it is like being a kid on Saturday morning, waiting for your favorite cartoons to be on. You do eventually get to watch them, but there’s awful garbage in between each. Despite having to sit through it, you leave the experience satisfied enough, with a little regret.