A long, long time ago, an episode of Batman: The Animated Series twisted my mind in all the right ways. It was one where a new character was introduced, only to be revealed to be piece of Clayface that he sent out as a scout, but that became lost in the process and eventually became its own independent entity. It raised a bunch of intriguing questions about what it means to exist and where the lines are, and ever since, movies and games that hit on and explore those same questions have been virtually guaranteed to become personal favorites of mine. SOMA is absolutely in the same vein as that episode, and not just in a single story instance; every situation, scene, and character is designed to raise these types of questions, sometimes doing so from different angles or in a context that challenges what you’d expect your go-to response to be. The ways that it pulls this off, however, are all spoilers, so it’s impossible to talk about SOMA’s greatest accomplishments without potentially ruining them for someone. Consider that a bit of a disclaimer that the game’s story is amazing, then, because the lesser facets that are safe to talk about (including some slight technical imperfections) are ultimately dwarfed by the gravity of the story.
Hey, new monster friends!
A small number of things are rapidly becoming clear. First, that the scary part of this game has nothing to do with the monsters. The excellent sound effects and area design create a sense of constant dread, and this allows even the moments where you’re completely safe to scare more than any monster ever could. All it takes is a slowly building conviction that something must be up ahead for something as innocuous as unexpectedly flickering lights to send you over the edge, and the way the game builds up to this is simply brilliant. Safe Mode isn’t a Not Scary mode.
Then the monsters show up and you’re like, “Can you keep it down with the screaming? I think something scary is up ahead.” They’ve certainly upped the ante a bit from Turt Douglas, though, with this monster (who I lovingly named Disco Dude after the disco ball that appears stuck on his head) being capable of teleporting around. There’s something kind of creepy about turning a corner and having someone suddenly standing there. Especially when they’re not wearing pants.
Then there’s this guy, who I named Screamy McCancer. Not out of love. I hate this guy. He runs around like a cartoon character and kept body-checking me while I was trying to find something, causing the visuals to freak out. This room is already dark and hard to navigate, so him making things more difficult started to get irritating.
Disco Dude isn’t much better as far as being a hassle is concerned, though. Merely being around him causes visual distortion, and there’s a section where he chases you in an underwater area. This is as good a time as any to remind anyone reading that I become easily lost. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to finally retrace my steps and make it out of this area, and all the while everything was shaking and going crazy. That’s to say nothing about the pantsless Disco Dude stalking around. If I hadn’t been on Safe Mode and capable of walking past him, I’d have ragequit the game at this point. That would have been a miserable experience.
But it’s still fun messing with things
I found a skeleton near an action movie poster, so obviously I had to pick it up and try to position it to be his head. It didn’t work as well as I had hoped since doing so required moving up close to where you couldn’t see much of the poster, but picture a generic action movie hero carrying a machine gun. But with a skull for a head.
There’s also a companion-type character who occasionally communicates with main character Simon over the radio. I found her room before long, and while I explored it in exactly the same way as I do every room, it was amusing how she became more and more uncomfortable with me rummaging around and going through everything.
Surprisingly genuine emotion
I saved this little robot earlier in the story, and while it doesn’t talk, it’s got enough personality (implied through its actions) to steal the show whenever it shows up.
There was also a point in the game where progressing meant acquiring a chip from a robot. Forcefully. Taking down this confused, presumably innocent robot as it wandered around made me feel incredibly guilty despite it not receiving much in the way of characterization. Really, its constant talking up to that point went a long ways toward establishing it as a type of living thing, and it felt awful knowing that the ensuing silence was my fault. The subtle character building in this game that allows such quick attachments to be possible is second to none.
I got lost again
Okay, there are a few occasions where rooms aren’t designed in an ideal way. That early room where you have to break the glass is one example of this, though even that isn’t as bad as this bit. Basically, you have to activate something in this room, but nothing seems to work. There’s one console in here, but the buttons on it don’t actually work. There’s a ladder, but it can’t reach anything that can be meaningfully interacted with. I felt like the solution here was simple (and it was), but the game’s occasionally so dark that it’s difficult to see all of a room’s elements.
The solution? There’s a wire on the ground that you have to plug into the console. Apparently the dials and buttons only work when it’s plugged in, and I simply couldn’t tell that it was unplugged on my TV because of the darkness. Thankfully, SOMA has been out (on other platforms) since 2015, so I wasn’t the first to have this problem. That meant it was possible to find the solution with a quick internet search.
There are some minor graphical hiccups
I’m still having occasional stutters, but they seem to only arise when the game starts loading things. That’s not always ideal, and it’s happening more often than I’d like, but the gameplay remains perfectly smooth for the most part. Especially since you often find yourself wandering around smaller areas rather than constantly pushing forward. There are other minor technical issues, though, such as some Z-buffer fighting that I’ve noticed once or twice. The shadows also freaked out at one point, though this happened so quickly that I didn’t manage to capture it in a video or screenshot. Overall, I’m impressed by the fidelity of the graphics and the smoothness of the performance on the Xbox One despite such hiccups.
I have no idea how windows work, though
The first cracked window I encounter shattered when I threw a chair through it. This window here also shattered, and this was also required to get past a locked door.
But a little earlier, I encountered a cracked window that didn’t shatter regardless of what I threw at it. I even tried throwing a chair multiple times. It’s not a big deal or anything, but I’m always somewhat annoyed by inconsistencies like this. Similar things functioning differently makes something like shattering windows feel contrived and plot-convenient rather than a universal rule of the world you can rely on.