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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

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Review: SOMA (Steam)

There are few video games that could pry a tear from my eyes but by the time I was done with SOMA’s final heartbreaking moment, I knew that the game I had dedicated 14 hours to finish was worth it from the first and down to its last minute. I took the right decision in postponing my review of SOMA until I had the full, clear picture in regards to it. Created and published by Frictional Games (of Penumbra & Amnesia fame), SOMA had been in development since 2010 and finally released after 5 more years. Time well spent if you ask me. The final product is their finest video game to date and a new favorite of mine.

SOMA does begin with a quote from Phillip K. Dick, a prolific Sci-Fi writer whom you may recognize for his contribution to cult classics such as Blade Runner and Total Recall…and yet the game I’m reviewing today reminded me more of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982); A film which features a crew of scientists and engineers in an isolated environment and helpless situation which slowly succumbs to forces which they may or may not have enabled. As with any video game I write about, I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum if any at all. SOMA is a powerful story-driven experience and you fully deserve to witness it by yourselves.

SOMA’s protagonist is Toronto native Simon Jarrett. The story doesn’t begin on a very optimistic note, with our hero trying to overcome head injuries sustained during a car crash. He goes for a brain scan from which he inexplicably wakes up in a strange, futuristic setting: a facility which is seemingly abandoned. As you can imagine, the mystery needs to be solved fast and Simon’s own survival depends on his ability to adapt to the change of scenery and the unexpected chain of events that are soon to follow. I really like the use of Classical Latin in video games, but I admit the developers made the right choice in using Greek for a change in their naming process for places or objects. Even the game’s title means “Body” in the Greek language. You shall come across several terms which I will explain now, since they’re metaphors that require a better understanding. Since Greek elements seem to be woven into the game’s structure, I’m willing to compare it to a Greek Tragedy since it follows close to the Aristotelian Unities, or rules for drama: Unity of action, time and place.

In 2103, Earth was hit by a massive comet named “Telos” (The End) which killed most lifeforms above sea level. Luckily, if you can consider it so, the underwater Atlantic-based PATHOS-II research facility has been left mostly undamaged by the Apocalypse sweeping across the surface of the planet.“Pathos” has a wider meaning in Greek and among those terms, we have: “passion”, “suffering” and “experience”. I’ll let you pick the one which might serve the current in-game situation. PATHOS-II is formed from 9 substations (each named after a letter from the Greek alphabet) and you shall have the chance to explore 8 of them, more specifically the ones which are underwater and at different depths. It’s a gradual descent into the Abyss and that may be a metaphor on its own. A Sci-Fi title about the ocean floor is a well deserved break from the more conventional outer space exploration themes that are prevalent in the genre.

I have a real fascination with maps, posters, diagrams, leaflets or blueprints in video games. They offer much-needed story context and also prove that the dev team went the extra mile in making their project as convincing as possible. SOMA is just such an example with detailed sketches, drawings and written materials in ample supply. Frictional Games have created and upgraded over the years, their own proprietary graphics engine: HPL (initials of Howard Phillips Lovecraft), currently in its third iteration and the one which is implemented in SOMA as well.

As I mentioned above, I spent 14 hours in SOMA, yet the game can be finished even in 10 if you’re in a hurry. You shouldn’t be though. I explored every nook and cranny of PATHOS-II and took over 200 screenshots, out of which a vast majority have been published on my Steam profile too. It was hard not to stop and immortalize certain moments or objects of interest along my in-game journey, which would almost rival an odyssey in its scope. It’s even harder to select just a handful which I like the most. The HPL Engine in theory, can push those SOMA pixels at 4K resolution and maxed out details but for a stable 60 frames per second, I settled with 2K and never looked back. Many screenshots I capture through the Steam Overlay end up being great desktop backgrounds sooner or later and the ones SOMA has provided me with are no exception!

Top notch voice acting which simulates emotions in a convincing manner. SOMA really puts an emphasis on the concept of humanity itself and it needed proper voice acting despite the relatively low number of characters. Furthermore, the soundtrack is a combination of conventional and synthesized music, alternating in a well planned order. No flaws found even in regards to the general sound effects which never failed to meet expectations.

The survival horror elements in SOMA much like the in-game tension, build up over time and the pacing is perfect. You are not thrown into the thick of it from the start. You need to get your bearings first and as you can imagine, the enemies only increase in challenge as you progress through the last substations. I appreciate the option of not being able to fight back and thus forcing players to sneak by or outsmart their foes. SOMA isn’t an FPS and it shouldn’t have to emulate the gameplay mechanics of one. Far less jump scares than in previous Frictional titles, ensure that you can play it safe, as long as you crouch and move close to the shadows at all times. But you’ll know when you’re being stalked or outright hunted in SOMA, trust me.

There will be moments of peaceful exploration aplenty, in order to advance the storyline. To give you some further context, the game’s antagonist is represented by a hive mind-like Artificial Intelligence called WAU (Warden Unit) which has tampered and mixed both the machinery, organic material and wild life across PATHOS-II. The enemy you need to evade can be compared to the Mass Effect Geth or the Borg Collective. It won’t be easy, yet Simon receives plenty of help as well. The puzzle sections don’t represent much a challenge, but SOMA isn’t an adventure game by definition.

SOMA manages to really touch the more sensitive issues about self-identity, coping with pain or loss and ultimately, trans-humanism. What is the true definition of humanity? From which point onward, can we stop considering ourselves to be alive or “normal”? I consider this game to be both flawless and fully worth its asking price. Very hard for me to file a complaint in SOMA’s regard since I believe that even its linear structure is pretty much unavoidable, given the attention to detail and progressive storyline. You can watch an eight-episode prequel to SOMA, titled Transmissions, on Frictional Games’ YouTube account (link below) and you have no excuse not to purchase the game now or during a Steam Sale and experience it yourselves at some point.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.



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