Reviewed on PC.
The description of Soma suggested a game that I would enjoy a lot: a philosophical sci-fi game set in a frightening environment. Did it live up to my expectations? Well…
In Soma, you play as Simon Jarrett, who wakes up on a strange research facility at the bottom of the ocean, with no idea how he got there. He soon gets in touch with this game’s ‘friend on a radio’s other end’, Catherine, who encourages him to complete the project the scientists were working on before things went sour (as they always do). Over the course of the game, Simon finds out how he ended up on the facility, and ruminates on the ethical issues brought up by the experiments conducted. Unfortunately, I found Simon’s reactions to events extremely unconvincing; he seemed way too calm considering the situations he found himself in. Also, the plot is usually advanced by Catherine spurting a chunk of information, and then telling Simon to find something, and instead of asking relevant questions, Simon instead will try and force a philosophical discussion about consciousness, making him sound like a pretentious douche. It’s almost like the game is screaming ‘THIS STORY IS THOUGHT-PROVOKING ARE YOU IMPRESSED?’. There are plenty of documents and audio logs to fill in backstory, but both of these have problems: the documents are often illegible, which is realistic, but is not very helpful in a narrative-focused game; and the audio logs slow your movement, intentionally blur the screen and require you to stay close to the source, and I prefer to listen to audio logs while exploring. There are also ‘moral choices’, but very few are actual choices, you simply have one option to progress. The times when a decision was available had no impact because I was already detached from the experience thanks to everything been dull, and the lack of repercussions for my actions reinforced the feeling of apathy.
This game is a walking simulator, with occasional puzzles and extremely rare stealth sections. The vast majority of your time will be spent calmly strolling through the game’s industrial facilities and ocean floor environments looking for the next item, area or puzzle needed to progress. Rooms are littered with items you can pick up and throw, and while this makes the world feel a little more interactive, it’s a completely useless feature. In a similar vein, actions like pulling levers and pushing doors open require you to make extravagant gestures with your mouse; turning a valve meant I had to clear some space on my desk in order to complete the large circular motion. The puzzles range in difficulty. Some are unbelievably simple – one has you playing dot to dot, which somehow restores power to a floor. Others are a bit more drawn out, either because they require an item that is easy to miss amongst the shit thrown everywhere, or because they are just plain unintuitive. Of the numerous puzzles in the game, I only found two of them truly interesting.
Onto the stealth sections. There are a few occasions when a spooky monster will turn up and patrol the area, and you have to avoid looking at or getting too close to them, which means you don’t get an opportunity to appreciate the monster designs. These encounters are devoid of tension for a number of reasons. The main stumbling block is the fact that if they detect and catch you, you survive their first few assaults, with slower movement and unpleasant screen effects being the only penalties until you heal up. By the way, you heal by… putting your fist in… it’s gross. In addition, the level designs and game mechanics do not always accommodate these sneaking sections, as the encounters sometimes take place in areas without anywhere to hide, meaning you either have to reveal yourself to the creature and then sprint around it, or let it hit you and hope it has moved out of the way when you get up. Thankfully, you only encounter one monster at a time, so as long as you have the space to get around them, there isn’t any real challenge.
In addition to the issues with story and gameplay, I had to deal with some serious performance problems. Disclaimer: according to systemrequirementslab.com, I pass the recommended settings for this game. When I selected ‘auto-detect settings’, the game put every setting on full. The game started, and I was greeted by a massively inconsistent frame rate. Even with everything turned down, the frame rate still lurched about and the only fix I could find was lowering the resolution. Once I had tackled the frame rate problems, I still had to cope with stuttering, screen tearing, texture pop-ins and some lengthy load times. If the game was graphically stunning or had lots going on at once, I could understand the performance hit, but as it is, I have to presume the game is poorly optimised and the worthless physics objects are giving the hardware a good kicking. I only ran into one bug, which caused Simon to continuously hold his PDA/key device in front of his face after using it, which was remedied when it was used again.
Soma was honestly quite painful to play. While a few times the game succeeded in making me pause and ponder, the huge stretches of walking and the near-absence of gameplay between these moments meant I was way too bored to stay properly invested, and the game feels like missed potential. If its length was cut down to a few hours, or if it was realised as a book, film, or TV series, it would be more palatable, and possibly interesting. As it is, I feel like I could get a similar, if not better, experience by wandering around the house, reading an ‘Existentialism 101’ book while throwing random objects with my free hand.