We’ve all done it: you wake up on an undersea research station with no idea how you got there, and have to spend the rest of the day hiding behind tables from insane killer robots. Aaand that… [checks notes] is pretty much all the detail I can give you on Soma’s plot because the whole damn thing is made of spoilers. I can tell you what it does, how it works and if it’s good, but a lot of specific reasons why it’s special are filed under ‘find out for yourself’.
So, you’re on a base. It’s underwater and things have gone horribly, horribly wrong, because being on underwater bases when everything’s okay would be boring. No need to worry about that here however, because there are strange biomechanical growths protruding through the walls, engulfing bodies that seem to still be half alive. While broken robots twitch on the ground, convinced they’re human and making heartbreaking pleas when you unplug them: “I needed that”, a buzzing female voice half sobs from a speaker as you yank her… its wires from a terminal.
There’s no end of darkness here. The kind you might associate with classic sci-fi short stories and novellas; traces of great authors like Ray Bradbury or Philip K Dick (who wrote the book that inspired Blade Runner, and has a quote used to open the game) The tone, concepts and certain key events in Soma can be deeply unpleasant to process. At a couple of points there are outcomes that are real ‘put the controller down and think about it’ moments (one of which made me actively hate the developers). Even at the ‘best’ of times there’s still an achingly bleak vein building through everything. You might want to keep a picture of kittens handy for a boost while you’re playing. Here, use this one:
His name’s Crispin.
Much of the game sees you creeping through corridors trying to reach a goal. Again: spoilers, but I can at least tell you that your character, Simon, finds a partner and together they come up with a plan firmly focused on the idea of not being in a undersea deathtrap anymore. Early on, as events develop, it can be a little slow but once past the first act things pick up.
Part of that slow burn is due to the complete lack of guidance or interface. There are no objective markers, arrows or helping hands here. This is the kind of game where, if there’s a code for a door somewhere, you have to actually remember it. There’s a great deal of real world logic to puzzle solving: taking inventory of your surroundings and trying to work out what might be useful.
All of Soma takes place in a deep sea research station, creating a varied range of locations from the opportunities that provides. There are cramped submarine-like corridors, engineering-flavoured basements and almost bearable living quarters. Then there are occasional trips to the seafloor with shipwrecks cracked open on the rocks and tortuous paths of lights strung between airlocks. It’s familiar and alien all at once, and that’s without taking into account the strange goings on.
It’s helped by a wonderful physicality as you pull open drawers and flip switches with the right trigger and stick. Ultimately it’s hugely satisfying to find solutions with your actual brain rather than following prompts, but it can take time to acclimatise. And it’s easy to get a little lost or be unsure if you’re on the right track. At one point I completely missed an objective because I zoned out for a second while someone spoke, and that was the only time what I was meant to be doing was mentioned. Don’t be surprised if you chance through a level without ever being entirely sure you’re going the right way or doing the right thing.
Momentum picks up as you get a better feel for what the game expects of you, and the story develops - you know: the thing I can’t really talk too much about. Early on you have no idea what’s going on, you’re just moving to new areas for reasons. But, as you uncover more and a relationship builds between Simon and his partner, an inertia builds, pulling you forwards. I came for the scares but stayed for the people. Horrible things happen and it’s such an interesting exploration of unusual ideas that you have to see it through. It’s genuinely one of my top video game endings ever, and I’m currently (gently) bullying a couple of other people to finish it so I can finally talk to someone about what happens.
It’s a shame, then, that it’s just not as scary as I’d like. There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout that cultivates a gnawing sense of dread, and more than a few jump scares, which is good. But monsters never really deliver and that’s bad. The problem is that they’re little more than dumb ambulatory obstacles. Any given initial arrival might prickle the hairs on your arms, but that soon passes once you realise the horror just sort of wanders around a bit like an old man who forgot why he came into the room.
Usually, you defeat the things in the dark by looping around behind them, or slipping past while they obediently investigate thrown objects. There’s no real pressure to that. Often encounters happen in quite confined areas too, usually just a few spaces and corridors. Although in a few case it’s literally a single room. It’s hard to be scared of anything when it just shuffles about in front of a thing you need, and then wanders off immediately to investigate mysterious flying spanners. I’m also pretty sure I missed a creature completely, purely by chance. I saw the back of something briefly and all the ambience screamed ‘scary monster time’, but I just walked through, got what I needed and left.
There’s one last thing: a technical issue where the game judders and freezes for a second or two occasionally as it loads. Sometimes it's a flickering dropped frame, other times a momentary lock up. It’s annoying more than anything else because it pulls you out of the moment. It’s not a technically demanding game either, so it’s hard to see what’s causing it. Hopefully, Frictional can fix it with a patch. As I said, it’s an irritation more than a dealbreaker.
But don’t let that, or the remedial monsters, put you off. Most of Soma’s strength is in its story and what happens to the people involved. This is a dark and deviant science fiction tale well worth a look thanks to some uncomfortable themes and concepts. And, at about 8 to 10-ish hours long, it’s a perfectly formed and satisfying experience to see through to conclusion. Seriously, that ending? You’ll be digesting it months from now.