SOMA, the 2015 first person survival horror title from Swedish developers Frictional Games, has finally made it’s way to the Xbox One. But SOMA’s arrival is not without controversy, as the release of the game on Xbox also coincides with an update on other platforms to add a “Safe” mode to the title which allows the player to drop the survival aspect of the survival horror title. While in safe mode, the monsters lurking in the abyss do not attack the player, though they are certainly still lurking around. There’s a lot of debating raging back and forth about game difficulties and whether or not players are getting the full experience of SOMA if they play in safe mode. For the sake of my review, I’ve played the game in both modes. (Journalistic integrity!)
SOMA begins by introducing players to our protagonist, Simon, in his natural habitat – his apartment. Simon’s apartment sets an important tone for SOMA. There’s an insane amount of detail in the tiny little space and almost all of it can be interacted with. Doing so fills in some of Simon’s backstory. He’s experienced a horrible accident and is left with a traumatic brain injury that is going to result in his untimely demise. He has, however, come across a doctor willing to try an experimental treatment that first requires a brain scan. Simon arrives at the lab where he is to have his brain scan and discovers it is a bit unconventional looking. Still, he meets with the doctor and goes through with the procedure.
Its at this point that Simon awakens to find himself aboard the Pathos-II and realize that things have gone very wrong. The underwater research station is absolutely beautiful in its disarray. A mysterious black ooze is dripping down various surfaces, mixed with the occasional spot of blood and gore. The Pathos-II has seen better days, and as players explore they’ll uncover clues that helps fill in the gaps of how Simon went from having a brain scan in 2015 to being in an underwater research facility in 2104 after a comet has wiped out all remaining life on earth. The game’s newly added safe mode makes this exploration much easier and more satisfying, as there are a lot of tiny details that add to the atmosphere (the “munchprint” 3D food printer in the cafeteria, for example!) that are so easy to skim over if you’re trying to survive the game’s ominous monster presences, as well.
Despite being unable to knock Simon out while in Safe Mode the monsters are still lurking around Pathos-II. Even when you know that they’re not a threat, their presence alone is still enough to keep most players on the edge of their seat. In one instance I was casually trying to repair an elevator so that I could reach another level, and despite everything seeming safe and fine I still managed to turn around to discover that one of the monsters was standing immediately behind me. Even with the knowledge that I couldn’t be harmed I was still taken aback. Believe me when I say only the most stoic of players can avoid being startled by these creatures. SOMA excels at creating an unsettling atmosphere where the most threatening aspect of the game is what your own mind can do with it. Every little creak, inexplicable flashing light, and shifting shadow captures your attention and leaves you wandering what may be lurking around the corner.
Playing in normal mode leaves Simon in danger of being knocked out by the creatures, which greatly increases the difficulty of SOMA while also resulting in missing out on a lot of the bonus intel that is hidden around Pathos-II. If Simon does come into contact with one of the creatures then the screen goes black and he reawakens a few moments later in the same spot. There’s no real punishment for being knocked out, and so it can even become a useful strategy to getting around the creatures. If there is one blocking your path, it can prove more fruitful to just let them knock you out and then once you reawaken they will have respawned elsewhere – opening up the path for you to get what you really wanted.
The story of SOMA is supplemented with puzzles, with Simon often having to flip switches or fetch battery packs throughout the stations to route power to necessary communication devices or to open doors. There’s nothing particularly genre breaking about the puzzles, but they do keep you moving through the world at a reasonable pace. The dialogue between Simon and a researcher he encounters on Pathos-II, Catherine Chun, is where SOMA truly shines. Together Simon and Catherine, in their effort to uncover the truth of what has happened to the both of them weave a complicated story that raises questions about what it means to be a human, and where we draw the line in the sand of what/whom is or isn’t alive. Deep in the darkest depths of the oceans, SOMA brews up an existential crisis that will stay with the player long after it’s final scene.