Frictional Games is coming up on their 10 year anniversary next year and they haven’t developed a flop yet. Their brand of video game horror is unique to them. While their horror competitors are jamming their games up with large guns and gore, Frictional seems to be pushing in the opposite direction: studying what drives fear and putting it into their games.
At the time of writing this, it’s been about 12 hours since I’ve completed Soma and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I had to play a different game entirely before I went to bed so I wouldn’t have nightmares. Soma is one of the scariest games I’ve ever played. It’s also one of the best science fiction storylines I’ve seen in a video game. I love it.
Part of me wants to give a story synopsis here, so consumers know what they’re diving into. But one of the greatest aspects to Soma is unfolding its story. I was absolutely fascinated with everything I was reading and hearing from start to finish. To avoid spoilers, I feel the safest way to describe the game is that players find themselves in a research and geothermal facility at the bottom of the ocean called Pathos-II (pay’-thoss). True to Frictional’s pedigree, there are unspeakable monsters to avoid, but the greater joy is discovering who you are and where you are.
For those worried, no, the game doesn’t fall back on the video game protagonist amnesia trope.
There are fewer monsters in Soma compared to Amnesia and Penumbra, but I think the game is much scarier. The game goes beyond jump and monster scares. It doesn’t lean too heavily on a macabre setting to unnerve the player (though the game will play on environmental fears, claustrophobia and isolation). Soma taps into the deeper side of humanity, asking questions of the player of existence, non-existence, the value of life, and the identification of the self… and it plays on fears that derive from those questions. That’s the kind of fear that lingers a little bit longer than some simple clash with a monster. It sticks with you.
Soma sets a new standard for audio design. Great music, solid voice acting, but most importantly, the sound effects are so perfect, I’d consider it a crime if the game doesn’t win an award for its audio. This game demands to be played loudly and on quality speakers or headphones.
The monsters are much more sensitive to sound this time, so any tap or crack will send them curiously looking for the player. I found myself putting my character in the darkest corner and closing my eyes while they’d squeal and growl and moan somewhere behind me. I don’t mean I’d be closing my characters eyes. I was closing my eyes in real life a few times. I haven’t done that for a horror movie or horror game since… I can’t even remember when.
Like Amnesia, there is no way to fight back against the creatures that lurk the hallways. Stealth and running away are the only options available to players. Just looking at the monsters disturbs your vision. There are a few new interesting monster behavior types. Most monsters behave the same as past Frictional games, but the improved audio design puts their presence over the top.
The environmental design is stunning. Pathos-II feels like a lived and worked in place. But Frictional didn’t only pay attention to the interiors to make sure they were spooky. The bottom of the ocean can be a frightening and beautiful place as well.
In the end, I feel this is Frictional’s most massaged product. It seems like they were retrospective about their previous successes and built on what made them great, and improved on what they were lacking. Amnesia’s story and voice acting weren’t the best, so Soma crafts a killer story line that ties perfectly into the horror atmosphere and brought in some great voice talent. Penumbra had an earthly, but identifiable isolated setting, Soma takes that concept and humanizes it further. The sound design for their games has always been great for scares, but here Frictional makes sure the entire experience is an auditory joy, making the audio for non-threatening moments as important as the heart-pounding chase sequences.
At around 11 hours, Soma doesn’t overstay its welcome, it’s paced well, and it doesn’t feel padded to tick off a box for required gameplay time. If I have complaints about the game, it’s that I found some of the puzzles a little too easy, but really. That’s it. It runs well and I didn’t run into any performance hindering hiccups.
Soma is a beautiful and haunting game with a quality science fiction storyline that no fan of horror should pass up. Another great title in an already amazing year of video games.
Tested on: PC
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Platforms: Windows, OSX, PS4, Linux
Launch Date: September 22, 2015
Review copy provided by developer