It’s been a long wait for fans of Frictional’s exceptional indie darling Amnesia: The Dark Descent, especially as the sequel from The Chinese Room didn’t quite reach the same heights. Five years and some cryptic teasers and web-based puzzles later, and we finally have a follow-up. Soma is a deep sea sci-fi horror tale that seeks to ask some deeper philosophical questions about the nature of existence, while also attempting to cause you to stain the upholstery.
Much like Amnesia, Soma is a first-person horror game with a heavy focus on exploration. You play as Simon, an everyman with more than his fair share of emotional baggage. Simon wakes up with no idea where he is, or how he got there. Yes, you’ve heard this one before, but while this is ground well-trod, there many unique touches that help differentiate Soma from basically every horror mystery game ever made. Sadly, these don’t surface often enough to elevate it above others in the genre.
Soma takes place in PATHOS-II, a deep sea research facility that features a sprawling, interconnected collection of research labs and abandoned living quarters. There is no human life left in the facility – not in the traditional sense, at least.
A few staff members remain, but most have had their consciousness implanted into one of the facility’s many robots – something they don’t seem to comprehend. And as disturbing as that is, the real horrors are the not-quite-human creatures roaming the corridors and flooded wreckage of the deep. These gasping, groaning abominations may resemble men on some levels, but they are far less human than the robotic residents of the PATHOS-II.
Soma is a game that does so many things right, yet in its first half it commits a litany of minor sins that threaten to sink your motivation to press ahead. Expectations are partly to blame: if you go in expecting another underwear-ruining experience like Amnesia, Soma is going to disappoint for the vast majority of its opening act, as those first hours are far more meandering than menacing.
There’s some clumsy object interaction controls, puzzles that are either too easy or needlessly obtuse, and some inconsistent tone and pacing. Most of simpler puzzles seemingly only serve to force poor Simon into a monster den for the sake of fulfilling the scare quota, too. These encounters are extremely affecting, but the way they are introduced feels obvious, especially given that Fractional has proven how well it can organically develop terror in past titles.
On top of all this, the auto save also causes a minor hitch, usually telegraphing another section where you might be in peril, or when you're about to transition between zones. The exploration and horror gameplay styles are consistently at odds with each other as well. Things feel disjointed, as if you are switching between gameplay styles rather than moving forward in the game.
Soma also lacks graphics options more its so-so visuals, offering only anti-aliasing along with some dynamic super resolution that I couldn’t get working. Even allusions here to a wider story are too threadbare to provide much in the way of interest, and the juxtaposition between the opening prologue and Simon’s awakening is so severe that you will spend the entire act waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s distracting.
That’s all too bad, because there is a genuinely interesting backstory to discover as you traverse the undersea ruins. Photos, notes, and scattered data buffers tell a genuinely disturbing and at times heart-breaking tale.
Thankfully, at around the midway point the game finally finds its stride. Simon uncovers the true nature of his predicament, and we can finally tie numerous loose strands into a single cohesive thread. Spoilers prevent much further explanation, but the game is brilliant from then on. If Fractional had hit this point five hours earlier, it would have had another instant horror classic on its hands.
Soma is at its best when it pushes horror to the fore. Its monsters are gruesome, and – one disco ball-wearing oddity aside – are legitimately terrifying. As is typical for strong entries in the genre, the sound design and soundtrack work in harmony to rack the tension up to almost breaking point, and when it delivers those heart-in-your-throat moments, the game truly shines.
So what’s here is almost an exceptional game. Soma is occasionally utterly terrifying, and at times deeply compelling, but it’s far too inconsistent to rise above the ocean of existing ideas it’s drowning in.