This week, Morgan plays another horror game, in an attempt to get some use out of his health insurance.
We share a complicated relationship, horror games and I. They seem an ideal choice for a man who has not felt a single emotion since hitting puberty, but then I get around to playing one, and swiftly remember most horror games released in the last seven or so years are made less to be experienced and more to be reacted to. Think YouTube videos or something equally tedious. This time, it was not peer pressure, but rather Steam that dutifully came to remind me of this fact:
“Oh Morgan, come play this low-budget survival horror game that won a BAFTA last year! It’s got lots of overwhelmingly dark environments and the main characters walks like he’s got shoes full of Lego, you’ll hate it!”
The “psychological horror” tag in particular was enough to make my eyes glaze over faster than when someone starts describing their Dungeons and Dragons campaign to me. You know what that usually entails: watching your character’s vision go fuzzy as a nondescript monster from fifty miles away knocks some pots and pans about under neon disco lighting. And so I only decided to try out this game with the understanding that the minute it played the jump-scare card, I was gone.
But rest assured; Soma is on a much slower boil than that. You play as Simon Jarett, a car crash victim with a name so generic I’ll likely get it wrong before this review is over. After signing up for an experimental brain scan for his head injury (see The Bumper Book of Horror Cliches, section B, subcategory nine) the machine he ends up attached to transports him to a decrepit research facility below the sea.
There’s certainly a pungent whiff of Bioshock in the air as you’re forced to wander corridors that resemble a stoner’s dormitory after the first night of spring break. It even has that thing where it disguises loading processes as being stuck in an airlock waiting for the water to drain out, meaning that Bioshock 2 may also have been eyeing it up through the bars of its death row cell.
Soma was conjured from the depths of Frictional Games, a company best known for its Amnesia franchise, in which a clueless white male wanders around an eldritch castle looking for a way out before rejected H.I. Geiger artworks turn his insides to casserole. Conversely, Soma features a clueless white male who wanders around an undersea laboratory looking for a way out before rejected Pirates of the Caribbean artworks turn his insides to casserole. If that’s not a bold stride in a brand-new direction, then I don’t know what is.
“Morgan, you cankerous nob-jockey, nobody cares about the company, nor their repetitive habits. What we care about is whether or not it’s scary.”
You’re absolutely correct. Look at me dancing around the issue, dancy-dancy-dancy…
Alright, fine. Let’s cut to the nub of the matter: would Soma be a bad recommendation for someone with poor bladder control? I personally found it to be sufficiently terrifying, but bear in mind I’ve been jump-scared on more than one occasion by my own dog trotting around a blind corner. The only spine I showed during my playthrough was when one of the many betentacled monsters caught me and tore it out for use as a xylophone: I’d back away from every door as they opened, I’d try to hide the nanosecond someone coughed several miles down an unlit corridor, you name it.
Monsters can harm you from any distance (read: make the screen glitchy and give a certain degree of severe headache depending on distance) provide you’re making eye contact with them; whether this fact was borne of a lack of good hiding spaces or an overly-shy design artist, I don’t know. You’d think that if they wanted to display any passing awareness of realism, they’d give you a mechanic for hiding under desks or in lockers, but nope. It’s like those bullying PSAs, just stop giving them attention and they’ll pack it in. This served to only make them less scary in a way, as for most segments I could just crouch in a corner and face the wall like I’d just been put on a time-out, and they’d stroll right past me.
Soma isn’t just a horror game though, oh dearie me, no. Just when I think I’m going to get it finished in time for the article deadline, it also gets its sick kicks by drawing out the terror with badly-explained puzzles which I mostly needed to consult a guide for. But before you get all sniffy at me for not engaging with the gameplay, it’s hard to replace the tyre on a repair drone when you half-expect a fish mutant with the face of the Michelin Man to appear from nowhere, demonstrating where you went wrong in the brief seconds before he skewers you to the wall.
The technical issues mostly relate to sound design, which, as they say at my local treatment facility for microscopic waste, is a little rubbish. The noise monsters make don’t seem to change much in volume with their proximity, making it incredibly hard to hit that happy medium between not looking at them and at the same time trying to figure out where the hell they are. Light levels can be tricky too, using your torch can also attract monsters, but sometimes it’s too dark to see your escape route. They’re not going to stand patiently as we scramble around like we’ve come back from a 3am bender and can’t find our kebab in the coal cellar.
Soma’s major themes involve existentialism and life beyond death (and I can’t make that sound funny, so just imagine I drew a penis next to those words or something). Naturally, you can’t touch these ideas without running the risk of disappearing up your own backside and simultaneously erecting a giant neon sign reading “There’s a plot twist at the end”. You have in your possession a little tool carrying the mind of a woman, who has been uploaded electronically (and no, it doesn’t make much sense in context), as she repeatedly explains how this method will apparently serve mankind from a dying earth.
I’d like to comment on said twist, but unfortunately, I haven’t reached it as of yet and probably never will. Most of what I managed to discover early on I had to work out for myself, which is definitely to Soma’s credit and so I find myself at this article’s conclusion with such a mixed bag of opinions – maybe my opinion is more my fault for not meeting it halfway. It isn’t a bad game on any technical level, it just gets same-y and prolonged rather quickly. A few theological debates with a glorified pager aren’t enough to engage my interest for five hours, is my point. I kept playing in the hope that all would be revealed soon, but Soma seems so intent on waiting until the end to tie things together that the already-thin sliver of shit I gave eventually dried up. And just because a horror game is capable of doing its job properly doesn’t mean I immediately recommend it.
Tell you what: see how long you can sit in a public toilet and fill out crossword puzzle books during a “bloody Mary” ritual. If you can go five hours or more, then you’ll probably want to check this out, or even better, get some psychiatric help. Just please never come near me.