Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC
This review will avoid plot spoilers.
I fancy myself something of a horror film scholar. I try to consume as much horror fiction as possible, and watch horror flicks as often as I can in my free time. Rather than simply watching these movies, I actually take away some knowledge about the genre from them. While horror fiction is certainly teeming with failed projects and also-rans, it can give us memorable stories from time to time, too. This is especially true when a work can transcend horror in a creative way.
The Devil's Rejects was a magnificent blend of action, horror, and exploitation cinema. The Babadook told a cautionary tale about mental health while shrouded in horror genre conventions. Suspiria was equal parts a story about witches and an audiovisual masterpiece. And as far as video games are concerned, no other horror title may warrant as much of a lasting impression as SOMA, a title that proudly treads multiple styles and genres. The latest effort from Penumbra and Amnesia developer Frictional Games is one of the most mind-blowing, provocative, and straight-up inspired works to come from the horror genre in a long time — possibly ever.
Things are not what they seem
During the course of its 10-hour story, SOMA manages to slowly fill you in on what exactly is happening. To share any of the narrative-related details here would greatly diminish the riveting experience that comes from piecing everything together for yourself.
I will mention, however, that when the protagonist, a young man by the name of Simon, wakes up in the cold, mechanical, underwater vessel at the start of the game, you'll have numerous questions swimming around your head. Specifically, you're going to want to know why Simon is there, how he got there, and why the game takes place underwater to begin with. Thankfully, all of those questions are eventually answered, and you're not left with any pesky ponderings by the end.
Along the way you meet a woman named Catherine, and it isn't long before you're asking yourself several questions about her, too. Once again, all of those questions are answered, and it's through the seemingly love-hate relationship that she and Simon share that you discover everything else about your surroundings and yourself. It's a slow build that's absolutely intense and pays off in a massive way.
It's what you can't see ...
Less is more in the case of SOMA. The game's approach to horror is mostly minimalist, and this works in its favor. Sound plays a huge role in how SOMA instills fear in the player. As you walk about cold, sterile environments, you can hear the sound of machinery functioning in the background. Then, as if out of nowhere, you'll hear something like a loud bang or eerie footsteps. You hardly ever know what to expect, and that's what adds the feeling of dread that stays with you as you walk down long, dark corridors.
You don't ever really know if something is right around the corner, waiting to prey upon you, and that's where SOMA plays its mindgames brilliantly. Will something pop out and scare the crap out of you? Maybe. Maybe not. You're never sure, which is what makes the sound design so effective.
Okay, so what you see is pretty terrifying
When SOMA isn't playing audio tricks on you, it sends more straightforward scares your way. More specifically, humanoid enemies will appear from time to time, slowly lumbering around the dark rooms and hallways. If you get too close or make too much noise, they'll begin their pursuit. Because staring directly at them distorts your vision — there's a story-related reason for this that I won't spoil here — you can never look at these creatures for too long.
This makes it so that you have to run and hide from them, hoping they won't discover your whereabouts. And since you can't stare at them for long, it's best that you don't try and look back when you're running from them, as this will mess you up.
The enemy designs are, unfortunately, not as diverse as they could've been. You'll see a handful of monstrous beings recycled throughout the adventure, and though each type of enemy behaves differently, it won't be long before you figure out how to outrun them. If they catch Simon, he'll get knocked out for a bit before waking up right where he left off, though his vision will be hazy and his movement will be hindered until he finds health.
Aside from running away and hiding from enemies, SOMA also throws several other tasks at you. These mostly include collecting key items and solving simple puzzles. A lot of the time, your progression will be halted until you can seek out some sort of mechanism to open a door. Sometimes you need to find multiple items to build a machine. This scavenger hunt-like aspect works for the most part, but it does get repetitive after a while.
None of the puzzles in SOMA are especially difficult, and I really only recall struggling to figure out a solution once, maybe twice. In a way, this lack of challenge is a good thing because it keeps the story moving along at a consistent rate.
Speaking of the story...
Again, I don't want to spoil anything in regards to the story, but there are a few things that should be noted. First off, this isn't just some survival-horror game with a lackluster plot. SOMA tackles some serious topics, and it isn't long before the game becomes a commentary on the meaning of life, death, relationships, and solitude. Simon is mostly alone during his quest for answers, with Catherine popping up from time to time as his sole companion.
As the plot unfolded, I felt bad for Simon and Catherine, and the game forced me to reflect on different aspects of life. By the end of it all, I was completely invested in the characters and the plot. Never have I been left reeling after finishing a game the way I was with SOMA — I actually had to hug my dog. It's an emotional experience that stays with you long after you've watched the credits roll.
And that's why SOMA succeeds as more than just "another horror game from those people who make horror games." It's more a story about reflection, spirituality, and human nature, but it has horror elements sprinkled throughout. It transcends its genre by not backing itself into a corner — it's not afraid to be more than a horror game, and that's why it successfully achieves more than the typical horror experience. In a lot of ways, SOMA gave me what I wanted Corpse of Discovery to give me, but it also gave me a lot more.
Regardless of whether you're a fan of horror games, SOMA is a genuinely heart-wrenching title that should be experienced. It'll scare you from time to time, and those scares are solid, tried-and-tested survival-horror fare. But beyond that, the game will make you think, it'll make you smile, and it may even make you cry.