Somerville goes from a cozy night in with the family to full-blown alien invasion within minutes. In one moment you're fetching a giant bag of dog kibble from the basement, and in the next the family is cowering together as the sky explodes with neon lights and the earth starts to rumble. Panic. It's palpable in every movement, every decision, every look and touch exchanged between husband and wife, parent and child – it's wonderful visual storytelling with not a single line of dialogue spoken.
Release date: November 15, 2022
Platform(s): PC, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
But then this new development team has priors with this kind of storytelling. Somerville is the first game from Jumpship, and it's a studio founded by Chris Olsen and Dino Patti – who just happens to be ex-CEO and co-founder of Playdead (of Inside and Limbo fame). Somerville is very much in the same vein as those aforementioned adventures: short in length, trial-and-error puzzle solving, and a stunning atmosphere explored with wordless narrative. And, for the most part, it's a triumph.
A long walk
After your evening is interrupted by glowing lights at the windows, the father is separated from his wife and child. He wakes up in the basement, alone bar the presence of his faithful dog, with the rest of his family nowhere to be found. For the majority of the game, it's just you and your hound, searching desperately for your kin – and generally just any sign of life. Our weary hero navigates a landscape that is caught in the middle of what seems to be an intergalactic war, one where humans are merely collateral damage.
Somerville is glorious to experience, visually. It thrives on its eerie aesthetics where neon purples, blues, and reds pierce otherwise muted, more natural pallets to beautiful effect. The simple interplay between the man and his dog includes some lovely moments, and although I will say the ending will have people talking about possible interpretations, it's otherwise a pretty emotional and simple tale about love and family. It'll only take you around four hours to play through to completion, but during that time you'll balance exploration with puzzle-solving.
A good portion of those puzzles will be simply trying to avoid the prying eyes that cast their gaze across the forest and car parks you traverse. These alien eyes act as searchlights for human life and are simple enough to avoid, but elsewhere there will be things that chase you and hunt you, so the panic will return again. Our hero runs frustratingly slowly too, to the point where escaping becomes purely about finding the exact path to take through foliage and other debris to escape in time.
Somerville has those same gameplay loops that Limbo and Inside do have, in that sometimes trial-and-error is your only way to learn what Jumpship wants you to do. Regularly it's not about finding a clever solution, but rather stumbling across the correct one after trying a number of others. I only encountered around three or four puzzles that really stumped me – including one that, even now, I genuinely don't know how I solved. I'd repeated the same little scene over and over again to the point where I was growing increasingly frustrated, and then suddenly it was done and I was left blinking with wonderment at how I'd finally been able to progress.
Light and dark
But that was just one moment. Otherwise, a lot of Somerville's puzzles are about utilizing the light-based powers you gain throughout the story. One lets you turn alien surfaces liquid, while the other makes them solid again, and you'll use them to move through various terrains and other structures as you attempt to reconnect with your family. Somerville does some clever things with that simple idea, and it adds great diversity to the puzzles you'll encounter in the game.
For what's essentially a 2.5-side scroller though, there were also some frustrations with interactivity. At certain points there were buttons to press or specific elements to interact with, and finding the right depth and position to situate yourself was a little fiddly. But, like the aforementioned puzzle quirks, those frustrations are few and far between, and thankfully the things it does well always manage to make the entire experience a very enjoyable one.
Somerville is a neat sci-fi adventure that's perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Compact, but with enough story depth that I'm still thinking about that ending many days later.
Somerville was reviewed on PC, with a code provided by the publisher.