Soma is one of those games that you really don't want to hear too much about before you sit down and play it, which makes writing about it a singularly tricky challenge. With that in mind we'll not mention anything not already in the public domain, and even then it'll probably feel like we've said too much.
Frictional Games, the studio that gave us Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Penumbra before it, have been working on Soma for several years, and it's nearing release, with the game heading to PlayStation 4 and PC this September. According to the developers it's basically finished, and the studio are merely adding spit and polish, although the build we were given to test apparently only contained around a third of the overall game.
We didn't get to see all of it, a crash meant we lost a chunk of progress - at least, in a game like this, where progress is slow and tentative, it felt like a lot - and that seemed as good a time as any to stop. Why? Because like you we don't want to spoil too much before we sit down and play the whole thing through.
Ignorance is bliss when playing a game like Soma, and the less you know going in the better. Having said that, even Frictional have been teasing a few things about their science fiction survival horror adventure, and what they've let slip is what we're going to discuss now.
First up, the intro; we can't talk about that. What we can examine is the setting, which is under water and suitably tense. It's a great backdrop for a game; a hostile world, isolation, the unknown, darkness. All classic horror themes. Much as was the case last year when we crept through the metal corridors of Sevastopol space station in Alien: Isolation, this is a wonderfully claustrophobic setting.
There's other parallels that can be drawn between this and Creative Assembly's superlative sci-fi horror, mainly in terms of the quality of presentation and the feeling of being grounded in the environment. In Soma there's a terrific sense of place, and it feels very tactile, tangible. It's a different beast in many other ways though, and we're not going to spend the rest of this preview comparing and contrasting.
Another thing that has been revealed by Frictional is the hook on which the story hangs. We're deep under the ocean surface in a futuristic research base of some kind. The why and how remains unanswered, but we're exploring, discovering more about our new environment, trying to piece things together and presumably trying to work out how to escape.
Then there's the local wildlife; machines that are mysteriously taking on humanistic traits. It leads to some unnerving moments, and no doubt to some interesting questions regarding sentience and morality. We want to know more, we want to find out why and how everything we've seen has happened. We want to lift the veil of mystery, if only to relieve some of the tension that's already starting to build.
"Identity, the self, and what makes a human human. Is it the body you're in? Is it the soul, or the mind? These are the questions we want you to be asking while playing the game," Frictional's Aaron Clifford told us when we spoke during this year's E3. We're already preparing ourselves for some moral conundrums.
One thing we were concerned about was the potential gamification of Soma, but from what we've seen, that doesn't seem to be an issue. With Amnesia we had trouble getting immersed in the experience because we spent too much time foraging for tinderboxes - it pulled us out of the moment then, and we didn't want the same thing to happen now. As far as we can tell, it seems like Frictional has learned their lesson.
"We've tried to stay away from anything that you can identify as a game mechanic, like the sanity meter and picking up tinderboxes, and stuff like that," Clifford reassures us. "This was all kind of gamey balancing acts that we feel draw you out of the experience. People did enjoy that kind of stuff with Amnesia, but I think that time's over and with Soma we just want the whole thing to be about immersing the player in the world."
And immersed we were. With nothing to distract us and with the volume cranked up, for a while we lost ourselves in the underwater world of PATHOS-2. The audio certainly heightened the atmosphere, with distant noises doing their best to unsettle us, while more immediate and punchy sound effects would frequently send shivers down the spine. Immersion is aided by some nicely observed details dotted throughout the environment, from the posters on the walls to the leaflets in the drawers. Visually it's crisp; industrial, metallic, finished with a sinister flourish. It looks like the kind of place we might enjoy forcing ourselves to explore.
Like Amnesia before it, and similarly to many other horror games that have been released since, the scariest moments are the ones fuelled by our own imaginations. Clifford explains that "with Soma we've gone a bit more deeper, psychological, slow burning, but long-lasting horror. Horror that hopefully you'll be thinking about and question the morality of your actions in the game. It's not all about just jump scares."
While we don't mind the odd jump scare, we have to agree with the sentiment; there's better ways to shock, and suspense can often have more impact than a straight up surprise. And with that in mind, we're looking forward to exploring more of Soma's submerged nightmare.