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

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

Like I said before, the game is mostly a first-person adventure. Frictional still tosses in the occasional enemy—and their designs are as unnerving as ever—but encounters are far less pervasive than they were in, say, Amnesia, where you spent 90 percent of the game crouched and creeping through shadows.

SOMA

Instead, SOMA goes for quality over quantity. While Amnesia featured tons of rank-and-file monsters, most anyone will tell you the “Water Monster” was the most memorable part of the game. The Water Monster (or “Kaernk”) in Amnesia was a special encounter in a flooded basement—an invisible monster you could only track by watching where the water splashed. And it was memorable because it was unique.

While I don’t think any adversary in SOMA quite reaches that level of genius, it’s clear Frictional took a different approach to the game, utilizing bespoke, one-off enemies instead of a single creature repeated ad infinitum. The result is threefold: Unforgettable moments, better pacing, and less mindless repetition.

But most of your time with SOMA involves exploring PATHOS-II. It’s a character in itself, separate from the crew. Its groans and metallic creaks keep you company during long stretches of isolation. Its cold green lights start to feel like a warm, familiar hug after five minutes traversing the barren ocean floor. The hiss of an airlock sounds like someone welcoming you home.

And when the lights go out, you know it’s time to hide. Or run.

Immersed

Post-E3, I made the obvious comparison—SOMA is like BioShock. After all, they both take place underwater and they both take a stab at telling a “real story” instead of the usual video game tripe. I’m amending that though, because the truth is SOMA does BioShock better than BioShock ever did BioShock.

SOMA

It’s like a trail diverged in the woods, and two separate-but-yet-extremely-similar games sprung from System Shock 2. One designed a story around the need for, as Ken Levine put it, “a skill component” (a.k.a. guns), and became BioShock. The other eschewed combat, focusing instead on System Shock 2’s world-building and the potential of telling a story in the first-person perspective. Thus, SOMA.

There are sequences in SOMA that only work because this is a video game, and more specifically, a first-person game—real gut-punches that only hit because you are inhabiting a character. A few bits make such expert use of first-person perspective I’m reminded of the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare which, before the series became a parody of itself, wowed an entire industry with its audacious manipulation of point-of-view.

But where Modern Warfare used it for spectacle, SOMA uses it to mull on various crises of conscience. To isolate you. To sit and reflect amidst the groaning of pressurized steel and billions of gallons of water churning above your head. Again, all in service of one pervasive question: What does it mean to be human?

 

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