Frictional Games makes some incredibly well-received games, and yet these have been entirely inaccessible to someone like me because of their focus on helplessness. Not having the option to karate chop or minigun my way through monsters just isn’t an experience I’ve ever been able to appreciate. Even in real life, knowing that going crazy and setting everything on fire is always an available option is a strangely comforting thing (though less so to others). When SOMA originally came out in 2015, then, I had no choice but to weather everyone’s talk about this brilliant game that remained out of my reach because of its genre. That is, until now—SOMA’s Xbox One release includes an optional “Safe Mode” that renders you immune to monster attacks, and this mode has been patched into the PC version and will eventually also find its way to the PS4 version. Safe Mode changes the game in subtle ways, causing many of the game’s monsters to ignore your presence until you go out of your way to antagonize them, though a few enemies toward the middle of the game are strangely aggressive regardless. Of course, SOMA is still a thoroughly creepy experience that retains its general atmosphere of there being something horrible just around the next corner, so it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t a “make the game accessible for those who detest scary games” mode. Instead, it’s more akin to a “speed up gameplay by eliminating the need to slowly creep around monsters” mode. Even for gamers like me who avoid most horror-type games, though, SOMA delves into various consciousness and identity issues that you’re not likely to experience in any other game out there, and is well worth fighting through for that reason.
Talking about SOMA’s story without ruining it is incredibly difficult
You play as Simon Jarrett, a Canadian man who was recently in a car accident that killed his friend and left him with potentially permanent brain damage. When the game first starts, he has an appointment with someone named David Munshi (whose name never ceases to sound like “munchy,” leading to unintentionally hilarious moments where Simon brings up Mister Munchy in complete seriousness) who’s working on a cutting-edge brain scanning technology designed to map the brain in order to help come up with a specialized treatment plan likely to increase his odds of recovery. Simon regularly has to have blood removed from his skull to avoid dying and could very well die anyway, so these are definitely desperate times necessitating such desperate measures, though it’s worth mentioning how surprisingly laissez-faire his attitude is in the face of all this.
As soon as the scan occurs, however, Simon finds himself in an underwater base filled with creepy talking robots (who are later replaced by fleshy humanoid monsters) and has to try to piece together how he came to this place. Eventually everything is explained, and in his travels he meets up with a companion character of sorts named Catherine who helps guide him through areas. One of the larger plot points that isn’t really a spoiler to bring up is her pet project, which is to scan various people to create virtual copies who can live on in a virtual world since the current state of things isn’t great. That leads to all kinds of interesting questions: if you were to make a perfect copy of yourself, could you find a way to live on through the copy? Or would it be a separate entity entirely? What if you could turn a virtual person on and off at will, always starting them from the same point? Would that person be a person at all, or just a program to be used? There’s even a The Prestige-style “would you continue living as yourself, or instead end up as the copy since both have the exact same experiences leading up to that point” angle tackled at one point, and these are the types of unusual questions that elevate SOMA’s story well above those of most games.
The highs and lows of gameplay
There’s a lot more that can be said of the story and the brilliant ways it uses context, situational necessity, and great voice acting to challenge the way you’d ordinarily approach such questions, but it’s not a good idea to delve too deeply into something like this that’s best experienced firsthand. There are numerous minor characters whose fates you’re ultimately in control of, however, and while these decisions don’t appear to factor into an alternate ending or anything, it’s always interesting to engage in vigorous self-debate about the merits of euthanasia while SOMA’s futuristic technology invariably adds an entirely new layer of complexity to such decisions (and morality in general).
This is a game where you spend a lot of time wandering around, reading and listening to logs in order to slowly piece together the specifics of what’s happening and why, and this part of the game proves to be surprisingly enjoyable. In one section (and this is going to be vague out of necessity), a suicide cult of sorts forms from an idea, and you read logs about these suicides while the environment reinforces how quickly the idea circulated and the carnage that followed in its wake. One room has a straight razor lying on a bloodied bed. Another person’s room has the diagram for a handheld maser that he used to kill himself. There are countless notes and logs and pictures to be found like this, and all of these items can be freely rotated. I can’t recall a single instance where doing so was actually necessary, but the option is always nice.
There are also puzzles to solve, though they’re relatively rare. Several boil down to manipulating switches or buttons to move a line to a specific place based on simplistic rules, which is something that’s difficult to explain in words, but suffice it to say that they’re usually one-offs that involve a single panel or room rather than requiring tons of backtracking. None of them are particularly time-consuming.
That’s a good thing, too, because there’s still a part of this game that revolves around spooky monsters stalking you around dimly-lit hallways. When not playing in Safe Mode, this necessitates carefully leaning around corners and sneaking around monsters while taking note of their specific tendencies. Some are blind and have acute hearing, while others teleport around and require avoiding eye contact. As interesting as this seems to be, however, the areas are kind of awkward to maneuver through because of Simon’s near-complete inability to jump over things and some invisible walls you start to deal with when you try to get clever with your hiding spots. That’s to say nothing of breaking windows, either, which is mandatory at several points and doesn’t always go swimmingly. Playing in Safe Mode removes a lot of the frustration of sneaking around, but around halfway in, SOMA decides to start throwing Simon into more and more dark, labyrinthine corridors that are populated with monsters who run around like cartoon characters and punch him without warning. Scary or not, it quickly becomes aggravating when you’re dealing with this while also hunting for the latest MacGuffin required to move on.
The visuals and music also have a little good and bad in them
In all fairness, nothing about SOMA is entirely beyond reproach; even the otherwise fantastic story suffers a bit from main character Simon being a little on the stupid/selfish side. The visuals fare similarly, being almost universally great (after doing some comparisons between the Xbox One version I was playing and user-made screenshots on Steam, I can’t notice any difference), but suffering a bit from the low light and some questionable sections where the screen is covered by an everything-is-blurry-now filter. The latter is most notably visible during an underwater sequence toward the end. There are also several low-key loading sections hidden (mostly) behind rooms that have to pressurize or depressurize before the door ahead can be opened, and these have a tendency to cause brief stutters as the next area loads in. As for the music, I’d go far to suggest that it’s the polar opposite of the visuals; most of the time it’d be better characterized as “noise” designed to prey on the feeling of helplessness that Frictional excels at, though there are a few standout electronic tracks I noticed that wouldn’t be out of place in some kind of rainy cyberpunk movie. That’s in addition to some moody piano tracks, though I wouldn’t characterize any of this as being particularly memorable despite how effective it is at establishing and maintaining SOMA’s oppressive atmosphere.
*An Xbox One review key for SOMA was provided for the purpose of this review