I’m not joking with that analogy by the way. Soma really does feel like the story that Frictional has always wanted to tell but needed a lot of experience to do so.
You guys know Amnesia: The Dark Descent? That indie horror game that took the community by storm upon release for being the scariest thing on the planet, allowing for a bunch of mods and idiotic contrarians thinking it’s cool to hate the thing to rise from the Internet gutter? Well regardless of what you thought of it, you can’t deny that it had a big impact on the horror video game genre, and you also can’t accuse Frictional Games of finding their “sweet spot” because whilst it does have the same gameplay where you explore an enclosed setting whilst avoiding monsters, the studio makes it clear with Soma that it wants to be taken seriously as a video game storyteller. Because you’d need to have several rocks for brains to say Amnesia had a good story, considering there was nothing to it but a guy having amnesia and having to brave through over two hundred puzzles, a bunch of mummies, and a completely un-scary water monster to kill a certain guy he doesn’t remember.
Soma is the story of Simon Jarrett, a man who wakes up in the middle of a doctor’s appointment to find himself in the Rapture from Bioshock with no recollection of how he got there and as such must explore the environment in order to find the truth. As he edges closer to the truth as well as an escape route from his underwater prison, he must deal with shocking revelations, avoid strange monsters that make his vision go all wonky if he so much as gets near them, and handle a lot of philosophy/hard choices regarding the meaning of life. I can’t really say much more than that because the game’s story is very reliant on the twists and whilst you can appreciate the package once you know the mystery – a rarity in the genre – that doesn’t change the fact that I’d have three people out for my head at the very least if I told you guys anything that’s written under the story section on Wikipedia.
To give you an idea of what I mean, I kept asking myself throughout the game “why do the words, Madoka Magica, keep coming to my mind?”. Because that’s what the horror atmosphere and plot progression by way of twists reminds me of, right down to some of the twists and themes being very similar. Although I will say straight up that Madoka doesn’t have any cute girls or magic or Shaft-isms or crying (unless you count an immersion-breaking whine fest in the end because Simon flat-out forgot about one of the game’s twists an hour after it was told to him) or god forbid, time travel. So if you’re like me and prefer sci-fi horror to magical girl Lovecraft, you’re going to have a great time with this. And all Madoka fans who say they like it for the story should check this game out too, unless they find the gameplay too irritating for them I mean.
And it is kind of irritating, don’t get me wrong. The game is a lot easier than Amnesia because your source of light never runs out, eliminating the need for conserving resources, and every time you run into a monster, you get one chance after getting hit to run away (albeit with a really stat-icy screen that will more often than not cause you to run into the monster again and get a message saying “you died” shortly afterwards). But whilst the monsters in Soma can frighten you, let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that the monsters in Amnesia grew wearily annoying when the game started spawning them after you solved a difficult puzzle like they were summoned by the auto-save function. And Soma seemed determined to beat that game in terms of “oh fuck, really?” moments, because the monsters in this game add nothing to the difficulty that’s genuine.
First off, they never really see you unless you get close, and you’ll always be far away from them on first encounter. Second, they don’t look very scary, although it’s kind of hard to tell at times because the game punishes your screen for looking at them for a very contrived reason. Third, the game in general just doesn’t have the same horror feel that Frictional’s other games do, partly because Simon is a very talkative dude and even has his own Kyuubey-esque sidekick chatting his ear off whilst not quite telling the whole truth as you move through the corridors. But even taking that out of account, Soma’s environment is more lonely rather than scary with puzzles that can lean a little on the obtuse side, and it’s hard enough traversing the big spacious halls without a monster patrolling the same area as you.
And to make things even more annoying, the reason the monsters are around is pathetic. So much so that the game sort of gives up and makes you take a small detour before you reach the final level to kill them all off with one button prompt. That’s right, the final level doesn’t even have monsters because it trusts that the puzzling can stand on its own as a satisfactory final climax and it is. This is probably the only time you’ll hear me say this, but Soma would have worked better as a walking simulator because its story is driven by our talkative main lead and the puzzles you have to solve to proceed will work your brain as well as your navigational skills. Maybe one or two chase scenes could have been kept in to increase tension, but overall you’ll be less annoyed with the alien in Alien: Isolation.
If I’m banging on too much on the monster thing, it’s because there’s not much else to say about the gameplay otherwise because it’s the same as any Frictional game. Pick up items, solve puzzles, use light to see in dark places whilst turning it off in monster areas, etc. etc. As I said earlier, the puzzles can be kinda obtuse, but as long as a monster isn’t distracting you, you’ll be hard-pressed to call them unfair. And since I can’t say much about the story, that doesn’t exactly leave me with much to recommend my readers besides “liked Madoka’s style of storytelling? Well then you’ll love this”.
I will say though that the themes Soma touches on are nothing new if you’ve ever had any contact with sci-fi existentialist fiction like Blade Runner or various episodes of Star Trek or…well…Madoka. But damn is it fucked up in its execution of said themes, particularly in the ending. As contrived as Simon’s reaction was to the “last” reveal, I couldn’t help but go “well that sucks” when *spoiler* happens and *spoiler* *spoiler* *spoiler* *spoiler* *spoiler*. But it was the good kind of “well that sucks”. The kind you’d see in something like Children of Men, and we all know how great a movie that is. And it was with that ending that I was finally convinced that Frictional had succeeded in its new story-focused direction, which I’m happy they did. Because as much as I prefer variety, that only works at the end of the day if you’re actually good at the new thing you try.
Soma isn’t a perfect game. It couldn’t fully escape its studio’s usual habits. But its story is one of the best video game stories of the year, and it’s easily the most fun I’ve ever had with a Frictional Games’ product on the whole. Give it a chance, even if you’re one of those contrarians who didn’t like Amnesia; but I won’t blame you if you choose to hurl your controller into the computer screen after a monster makes it bug out for the fifth time.