Soma - Brutal Backlog

January 7, 2019
BACKLOG
PS4
Also on: PC, Xbox One

Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.

I grew up in the PS1 era and it wasn't until a few years back that I realised how lucky I was to have experienced some of the best horror games to date. At the time, the first three Resident Evil and Silent Hill games got under my skin and I will never forget the feeling they gave me. As we moved through the PS2 and PS3 eras, horror games had swung more towards action. But in the current console generation we have seen a rise in indie titles that have been bringing psychological horror back to life — one of them being Soma. As this seemed a throwback to the horror games I loved growing up, it’s time to finally play it.

Three Minutes In

Soma had been recommended to me as I had just played Resident Evil 7 and I was looking for a similar experience. Apart from seeing a few screenshots of what looked like an underwater facility, I knew nothing about the game, so I was surprised when the game started off in a regular city apartment.

Well, this is going to need a tidy.

Simon Jarrett is taking part in some brain scan research after suffering from brain damage in a car crash, and today he is going for a scan. The controls are quickly introduced and it is as simple as using R2 to pick up or interact with everything, and L1 to throw an object. And seeing as you can pick up almost anything, I had some fun throwing inanimate objects around Simon’s apartment before doing what I needed to do.

Simon has triggered dialogue based on what you interact with and what you need to do, which helped start to build a portfolio of who he is as a person as well as directing the player towards their goal. The voice acting is so far great.


Thirty Minutes In

I am now inside a underwater facility. I am as confused as Simon as I am dropped into this place without any explanation or guidance on what to do next. As I search around the room I start to figure out what I have to do, and it is dawning on me that this game isn’t going to hold my hand.

My experiences with games that do not guide you have been mixed over the years, but generally I do not get on with them. I spent so long walking around the map for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter trying to figure out what to do next, that eventually I just got a headache and gave up. Soma on the other hand has managed to cleverly find a way to guide me through its map and story without any headaches so far.

Turn on, tune in, get killed.

I am playing Soma on a PS4 Pro with a 4K TV. As there is no 4K patch, the game requires boost mode which artificially upscales the game from 1080 to 4K.

Graphically the picture is clear but the textures are not great when close up. Overall the game looks and feels great and if anything the low-res textures add to the gritty look and abandoned atmosphere.


Two Hours In

By this point I have an AI human who I can only communicate with when hooked up to certain computer terminals. This technique of being alone with only a single device to communicate with someone has been done in games a few times now, but this is a fresh enough take on it for it not to feel like I have been here before. Firewatch did the same thing (albeit a year after Soma’s initial release), only you were alone as a fire lookout in a forest with a two way radio which allowed you to communicate with another lookout.

The most impressive thing about this game so far is how immersed I am. And it does this by making me think about what I would do if I really was in this situation. This means there is a bit of trial and error and occasionally not being sure what to do, but to its credit I have yet to get stuck for long enough to frustrate me. I have just had to look at what’s around me and work with it.

Press that button.

The sound design and music is exceptional. The music is subtle and cleverly blends in with the sound design.There is always the sound of something creepy in the distance or around you, yet that rarely amounts to anything ever happening. Instead it keeps you on edge in the more mundane moments of gameplay where you are just walking from A to B with nothing else going on.

More themes have been introduced to the story which are adding to the mystery and I am constantly thinking about why I am here and what is really going on. There are some great but familiar sci-fi themes being introduced and adding them to this unique situation builds an interesting and thought-provoking story.

The horror elements have fully kicked in now. There are some incredibly tense moments where I had to sneak around due to some unexplained paranormal creature who was slowly chasing me. And there have been moments where I have had to walk underwater to get between facilities and the mixture of the loneliness and the vastness of the deep played on my fears.

Five Hours In

By this point I have split my play time up over a few days. Even though I am enjoying it a lot, because it is quite linear and at times like a walking simulator, I found short bursts of play over a few days were enough for me. Make of that what you will, but for me it’s not so much a negative point as I have still enjoyed almost every moment. I think some will feel this way, others won’t.

The walking simulator aspect only creeps in when you are going from one area to the next, which at times takes up to a few minutes. You are free to move through the game and around the levels as you please, but ultimately there is only one way to go.

There has been a moment or two where it has taken me longer to work out what to do than I would have liked. Whether this is just my brain not being good at working out what to do, me missing something or the game not making it clear enough, I am not sure. However, the mystery of why Simon is here is fairly clear now, although I do still question if what is happening is real or all in his mind. But a lot is still unexplained so I am still eager to get to the end and hopefully find out what has happened. Strange things have happened in this world and in this facility in particular, so there is more to work out than just why Simon is here.

The atmosphere is tense throughout.

The game is full of interactive computers, documents and paper with scribbles on, as well as dead bodies and communication terminals that have recordings on them. Interacting with all this helps a lot with building a picture of what's been happening here as well as the superb dialogue between Simon and the human AI.


Nine Hours In

I can feel the game coming to a close now as there has been a clear objective for a while now and I am close to completing it. As I moved into what I discovered was the last thirty minutes or so, I was starting to feel the game was about to overstay its welcome. But not long after I thought this, the game came to its end and those feelings were erased. Without spoiling anything, the ending was satisfactory and pretty much everything felt wrapped up with no big mysteries left unsolved.

Final Verdict

Despite the walking simulator aspects and lack of skill progression, Soma’s mysterious story kept me on my toes and interested for the majority of my time with it.

I didn’t feel as scared as I was hoping, but there was enough to freak me out a bunch of times, especially when you’re having to run away from something! I wasn't expecting some of the science fiction elements, so as a lover of sci-fi I was pleasantly surprised. I spent a lot of my time with this game thinking about its various themes and overall I found it very thought-provoking.

At least you can still buffer data underwater.

Soma’s two greatest achievements are its storytelling and its level design. It rarely holds your hand, yet I was able to work out what to do next without any headaches. If only more non-guided games were this easy to figure out, then I would experience less frustration and fewer headaches while playing them. As such, Soma will appeal to fans of horror and sci-fi, as well as those who love a strong narrative-driven story.

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Worth playing? YES - it's still enjoyable today.
Joe Sheldrick

I have a deep love for story-driven and cinematic games, but after one of those I love to play a game where I can just run around shooting mindlessly. I will take stealth over action any day, and I mean in real life as well as in games.