Horror games should be scary – but this is easier said than done. Sure, there have been some very successful examples such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but all too often the genre relies on jump scares to startle unsuspecting players rather than get inside their head. Swedish outfit Frictional Games did much better than that with the critically acclaimed Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and so its latest project SOMA comes with high expectations. But as we mentioned earlier: being scary is easier said than done.
You assume the role of Simon Jarrett, whose backstory we'll dance around for the sake of spoilers. All you need to know is that the protagonist finds his way onto Pathos-II, a largely abandoned underwater base in the distant future – after humanity has been wiped from the surface of the Earth. As the star begins to acclimatise to his surroundings, he – along with the help of his companion Katherine Chun – will set out to complete a chain events that may be humanity's last hope for survival. No pressure, then, pal.
The game plays out from a first-person perspective, so running and hiding are the major points of gameplay. In traditional Frictional Games fashion, manipulating and examining the title's environment also plays a huge role. This results in you being forced to manually complete actions that most other games would gloss over, which understandably increases the tension when you're in a hurry.
The premise is pretty much perfect for a survival horror game. The title's environments represent an amalgamation of Event Horizon, Virus, and The Abyss, and they also take heaps of inspirations from the brilliant Michael Crichton novel Sphere. The cramped, confined spaces of Pathos-II are unnerving, but the open, daunting abyss of the ocean floor is perhaps even scarier. And these areas are explored in equal measure throughout the course of the campaign, as you move your way from outpost to outpost in order to progress through the game.
But while these areas are haunting and extremely disconcerting, they are also littered with creeping abominations that threaten to cut your time in Pathos-II rather short. Much like in Amnesia, it's lethal to even look at enemies for too long, as instead of an 'Insanity Meter', they give off fatal doses of electromagnetic bursts.
It's a good idea, but the enemies are one of the game's few missteps. They look grotesque, but they don't ever really offer a challenge. For starters, the AI pathing is far too predictable, and this deflates the tension a little – especially after the outstanding Alien: Isolation. They're also all far too easy to avoid: a brisk jog will get you away from them easily, and subsequently there's no real sense of danger or threat.
In fact, the game's at its scariest when it's simply teasing you with the unknown. The title does convey a good sense of seclusion in places, and this is when it's at its absolute scariest. An emphasis on mood, rather than stealth and evasion, may have made this a more successfully terrifying game.
Of course, that's not to say what's here isn't good – far from it. As mentioned, the grotesque locations make for some eerie surroundings, and they're enhanced by the immersive audio design, which helps to increase the sense of presence. It's simply more harrowing than acutely terrifying, which when you consider the pedigree, is a bit of a letdown.
That said, it can't be faulted for ambition, as many of the title's themes deal with the moral complexities of life and consciousness as they relate to AI. The game pulls at many of the same strings as Alex Garland's incredible film Ex Machina, but where that movie approached many of these issues from an analytical point of view, SOMA explores them from a more emotional stance. These topics get increasingly more impactful as you delve further into the base, as the game forces you to look at life in a different light.
This is by far the most successful element of the game, as the idea of synthetic morality thrives where the pure horror flounders somewhat. There's an amazing payoff as well, as all of the ideas culminate in a pretty compelling conclusion, which is honestly one of the best that we've seen in a while. Suffice to say, it's powerful.
To its credit, the moral issues are represented in the gameplay. Some of the segments – which are essentially fetch quests – revolve around you having to decide whether you want to effectively "kill" robots in order to take the parts from them that you desperately need or explore other avenues. It's not made easy for you either, as the robots will often talk to you while you do this – occasionally begging for their lives. It takes an emotional toll, and solidifies what is the strongest part of the game.
But the audio design's up there, too. The score – crafted beautifully by Mikko Tarmia – offers a fascinating blend of synthetic and organic sounds, which obviously mirrors the fiction well. And the effects, which depict the strain that Pathos-II's put under, help. It's a wonderfully presented game.
But it's not one without its issues, as we encountered some progress halting bugs along the way. The release has a very robust auto-save system so we never found ourselves losing much progress, but in a title that relies on immersion, they can be upsetting all the same. The problems are not helped by the fact that the game takes an absolute age to load – several minutes in some instances – while it pauses to stream in new data on regular occasions. None of these shortcomings are deal breakers by any stretch of the imagination, but they're worthy of note.
SOMA's an interesting release that succeeds and stumbles in areas that we didn't expect it to. Indeed, given the developer's track record, we'd anticipated a terrifying title – but while it has its eerie moments, it's a bit of a disappointment as a horror game. Where it's more successful is in its ability to depict the moral challenges of AI, and this subject matter results in some of the tougher decisions that we've seen in a game for a while. The plot is compelling, the presentation is generally very good, and the conclusion is outstanding. But all of these achievements will be tempered if you're looking for the kind of scares that defined Amnesia: The Dark Descent.