What makes a good horror? Is it the jump scares? Is it the creepy music? The gore? It’s different for everyone, but for us it’s the psychological aspect. The classic and memorable films and games are the ones that mess with your mind, something new first-person horror game SOMA does very well indeed.
If you’re a fan of the genre and are in any way tempted to give SOMA a try, my top tip is to go in as blind as you can. Don’t do the research, don’t read anything spoilery and don’t watch any videos. The very thing that initially freaked us the hell out was that as we began to play, we had absolutely no clue what was going on or what was going to come screaming around the corner at us any second. That’s how the developers want you to play. Fear of the unknown is one of the most effective scare tactics in the horror genre. It’s why horror films are always scarier at the beginning because once the threat is revealed, the fear is dampened. Oh it’s only that five-legged, three-eyed mutated pensioner with a modified knitting needle and bobbin. Freddy Krueger was scarier, blah blah. It’s lucky then, that SOMA does an excellent job of holding on to its secrets, pacing the story-telling and gradually unravelling your brain and your sanity until you begin to question your own existence. This isn’t a standard scare and run game. It’s so much deeper.
The game is set within a facility and we don’t want to say too much more. Your exact location is for you to discover. The facility is spread over a wide area with both inside and outside locations. Dark Sci-Fi is the name of the game, so expect to be creeping around gloomy metal rooms and long, tight corridors with plenty of corners where things could potentially be waiting to get you. It’s a cold and barren setting, very in keeping with the game’s story and themes; it’s alien, uncomfortable and claustrophobic. Even the outside portions of the game have an uncanny way of making you feel panicky and anxious. Graphically, SOMA is spot on with some lovely textures. The lighting is gloomy where it needs to be, creating even darker spaces. It contrasts well with rooms and sections that are bathed in light and make you feel dangerously exposed. Where’s that dimmer switch? Alongside the graphics are some great sound effects and subtle music. Believe me, if something really is lurking, you’ll probably hear it before you see it.
The threats within the game do vary. There are several enemy types and each can be dealt with in different ways. You just have to figure them out. SOMA isn’t just a horror game. It’s a puzzle and an adventure. You’re not just getting from A to B without getting a leg pulled off. With no superhuman powers and no weapon, you’ve got to use your noggin to survive. There are doors that need unlocking, power that needs switching on and enemies that need to be avoided. You’ll be navigating huge environments, accessing terminals, collecting memory chips, copying data and searching for life-saving equipment. It’s all a puzzle that needs deciphering and the enemies fall into this same category.
I’ve seen this game likened to Alien Isolation and we wondered before playing if this was the case. But it’s not. It is in no way the same game. It has a totally different feel. Alien was more about stealth and holding your nerve. SOMA is about thinking. If you’re looking for something to jump out and shout BOO! for the next 20 hours, Alien is the clear choice. That kind of constant scare-threat just wouldn’t work for SOMA. In this game you need time to think. Some sections are tougher than others and having a continuous threat could turn an interesting part of the game into a stressful or frustrating one. In the same vein, however, there were a few moments when the boundaries between the puzzling aspects and the eeek-it’s-after-me aspects were too clearly defined and we felt a little too safe. Of course that went right out the window when the game swung into its final few hours. More on that later.
The scare factor in SOMA relies on a more sophisticated technique than your average horror game. It’s psychological. The great pacing allows the plot to unfold in such a way that as the player, you feel the same growing horror as the character you’re controlling. Frictional Games have come up with a brilliantly terrifying premise. They want you to question life itself, what it means to have a consciousness and what it means to be alive. They want you to experience empathy and to ponder the consequences of a future that is so advanced that these questions no are longer clear cut but muddied, confusing and painful. It’s wonderfully existential, and as the game rolls towards the finale it is this that is so frightening, not a bunch of jump scares and spooky music. True fear needs to tap directly into your brain. It needs to infect your normal everyday persona and make you feel sick with an empathetic dread. SOMA certainly left us blinking up at the ceiling until the early hours.
As you approach the latter part of the game, things really speed up. The fear cranks up and the sense of peril and suffocation is brilliantly awful. Even the graphics change in certain sections and although it’s dark and hard to see that is sort of the point and it’s done so so well. Also watch out for some terrifying things-we-won’t-spoil . Just close one eye completely, only open the other a smidge and scream all the way through. That’s what we did.
By the time the credits rolled, we had been playing for around fifteen hours. It can probably be done quicker but we are chronic procrastinators and every darkened corner is intensely fascinating. There are ten trophies to collect and they’re all earned on the job, as it were. Your fifteen hours will truly fly by.
A top-notch first person horror that uses its story-telling to deliver the fear factor rather than relying on cheap scares. With its beautiful graphics, clever gameplay and haunting plot, SOMA will quickly become Legend. Congratulations, Frictional Games, on a new PS4 classic. SOMA is gorgeous, frightening and full of intelligence.
S J Hollis Rating – 9/10