SOMA is a horror game. Not because it has jump scares or because it fills you with a constant sense of dread. SOMA is a horror game because it makes you contemplate questions about yourself and humanity that are horrifying. These aren’t easy emotions to deal with, however SOMA isn’t meant to be taken lightly.
Right from the start, SOMA puts you into a somber and contemplative mood that won’t change much over its ten-hour runtime. Within seconds of Simon waking up in his apartment, you discover he has a terminal brain disease and his only hope of survival is an experimental treatment under the supervision of an unqualified doctor in a room dirtier than my office. That this opening is one of the least thought-provoking moments in the game, says a lot about what comes later.
After undergoing treatment, Simon wakes up in an underwater base called Pathos II in the early 22nd Century. To say how he got here would be a huge spoiler, so I’ll keep the story discussion brief. I spent a lot of time in SOMA wondering what the hell was going on, but SOMA provides answers to nearly all of the questions it poses. The answers are satisfying from a lore and storytelling perspective, even if they aren’t easy to deal with on a deeper level. It’s a story you’ll want to talk about after playing the game and it’s a shame I have to keep this review spoiler-free.
Most of SOMA’s gameplay is exploration and this is where the game excels. Pathos II is grim. The base is almost entirely devoid of human life, black goo drips off the walls, and machines roam around screaming and hunting you down. It feels like a base that was once capable of sustaining human life, even if you want to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.
The main story is told through Simon’s interactions with Catherine, a woman he meets early on who guides him through the base and sets him basic tasks such as turning on the power and downloading access codes. If you want more information on the crew of Pathos II, then there are plenty of notes, photos, and audio logs to pick up.
SOMA has a scattering of puzzles to solve which are straightforward affairs such as routing power through a series of switches or hacking into a computer by selecting the right files. While these puzzles are easy, there are a couple of moments where SOMA is strangely obtuse with what it expects you to do next. There’s a section where I was in a small locked room with nowhere to go. Catherine tells you to get a suit from a locker except all the lockers are locked. You can’t open any of them or find any keys, but she keeps telling you to get the suit from the locker. I looked everywhere, treating the game like an old-school point-and-click adventure game, trying to uncover the right pixel. It was infuriating. And then I noticed the small chambers with heavy metal doors that could be opened. They definitely weren’t lockers but that’s where the suit was located.
Similarly, there’s a moment where you need to call for transport while underwater. I thought I had the puzzle figured out and I successfully called the transport. The game crashed and I had to do it again. I did the exact same thing, however this time I couldn’t contact the transport. I still have no idea what I was supposed to do in this section, but eventually the transport showed up.
I would have been perfectly happy just exploring the station, reading notes, and solving the odd puzzle, but unfortunately there are monsters to deal with. Presumably Frictional Games was worried players would have gotten bored without these video game elements, but they weren’t necessary and make the experience worse overall. You can’t fight the monsters, so all you can do sneak past them. If they catch you, they do enough damage to make your screen blurry and your movement awkward until you find a healing station. Strangely, the monster then disappears and leaves you where you were caught. This means you can get always be caught once with absolutely no punishment other than slightly slower movement speed. If you get caught again before healing then you have to restart at a nearby checkpoint.
The monster sections didn’t need to be this terrible. There’s a visually impressive screen tearing effect when monsters are close by and it gets worse when you look directly at them. This provides an interesting challenge where you’re encouraged to look away from the thing you’re hiding from. It’s a decent system ruined by your almost complete inability to influence the monsters as you try to sneak past them. You can throw items and I think that sometimes makes monsters go and hunt down the source of the noise, but it happened so inconsistently that it could have just been a coincidence.
Alternatively, the monsters could have been removed completely. I wanted every monster section to be over with as soon as possible so that I could get back to the story and exploration. Some areas of Pathos II have optional rooms to explore with monsters roaming around nearby, so I found myself torn between my desire to uncover more about the story and to get away from the monsters for some peace and quiet. Underwater beasts are also a huge pain and even after completing the game, I still have no idea why they would sometimes attack me and other times ignore me. It’s related to staying near the lights, but… yeah, I have no idea.
The world of SOMA is plagued by technical issues. Every time the game autosaves on PS4, the frame rate takes a complete nosedive for few seconds. SOMA also hard crashed on me four times and I got stuck in a death loop where one monster kept damaging my character but never gave me back control or killed me.
These technical issues are unfortunate because most of SOMA looks great. There’s enough attention to detail in the environment that I had no problem whatsoever believing I was in an underground base. There’s a thematic consistency throughout the entire experience and you move to new areas often enough that the aesthetic never becomes tiresome. Likewise, the minimal sound design brings you into the world, although some of the voice acting leans a little too heavily into the B-movie vibe which doesn’t fit with SOMA’s deeper message.
SOMA’s existentialist themes are not particularly subtle and yet they’re no less meaningful for it. You occasionally make choices that are simultaneously meaningless and powerful at the same time. These choices have no impact on the story and yet I dwelt on them for ages nonetheless. After completing the game, you’ll look back on those choices through a completely new lens and you might be horrified by what you did.
Ultimately, SOMA is about hope. Your journey begins because Simon hopes his terminal brain damage can be cured. He continues because he hopes there’s a way off the base and a brighter future for himself and humanity. Whether or not he accomplishes his goal is down to your own interpretation of events.
After finishing SOMA, my mind was consumed with thoughts of what it means to be human. Did I torture and kill people in my attempt to escape? Or were they not really people at all and I can sleep soundly? That SOMA made me ask myself these questions is the reason why you should play this game, despite the inclusion of unnecessary and frustrating “video game moments.”