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SOMA review: Ghostly machines beneath the sea, exploring humanity's depths

Hayden Dingman | Sept. 22, 2015
Sinking into the abyss.

It’s appropriate that the first words you’ll see in SOMA are a quote by the late science fiction visionary Philip K. Dick. Sure, the quote—“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”—pertains to the story you’re about to experience, but that’s not what I mean.

The quote is an appropriate opening because SOMA feels like a piece of classic science fiction—something that would’ve come out of Harlan Ellison or Ray Bradbury or, yes, Philip K. Dick.

It’s a story you might’ve seen in grainy black and white on Twilight Zone or maybe The Outer Limits. It is bits of Blade Runner, of Demon with a Glass Hand, of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and The Martian Chronicles and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and so many other legendary works of science fiction. It’s a story that deals with that most human of all topics: What does it mean to be human?

NOTE: I’m going to try not to spoil anything in this review that wasn’t already covered in the game’s trailers, but be warned there are minor plot points ahead.

20,000 leagues

Most importantly, it’s the first time Frictional has developed a game where its output matches its ambitions.

SOMA

That’s not meant as a slight on Frictional’s previous work. In fact, it’s testament to the studio’s creative talent that both Penumbra and Amnesia became staples of the horror genre despite the obvious constraints of limited budget and personnel.

SOMA is something more though. It’s barely even a horror game, for starters. If you’re looking for another experience as overtly terrifying as Amnesia, look elsewhere. There are certainly horror elements to SOMA. There are dark corridors and blood splatters and things that go clank in the night. There are even monsters, of a sort.

But SOMA is mostly psychological—more first-person adventure game than first-person horror. After briefly playing the game at E3 I said SOMA seemed full of existential dread, and that remains true after ten hours with the game.

[FINAL SPOILER WARNING – AGAIN, ONLY THINGS COVERED IN TRAILERS]

SOMA

SOMA takes place in (and sometimes outside of) PATHOS-II, an underwater laboratory far below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. At one point PATHOS-II was a thriving facility, but now it’s mostly inhabited by robot…things. I mean, they look like robots, but they talk like people. They think they are people. They can hold conversations. They remember their lives. They feel pain. They can hate.

You play as Simon Jarrett, who—no surprise—wants to get the hell out of PATHOS-II before the robots turn on him or the station falls apart. Good luck.

 

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