Frictional Games has returned to the horror genre that they helped reinvigorate with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Soma has some similarities to the more traditional Lovecraftian game that made the studio's name, but it's also quite a departure and brings in plenty of changes.
We'll try hard not to spoil anything, but there's some elements that are unavoidable and need mentioning. The machines. The underwater setting. The claustrophobic atmosphere. The relentless tension. Soma is set in Pathos II, a series of structures resting on the ocean floor. Why you're there is very much a mystery. What's happening to the world around you is too. You must explore your surroundings and come to your own conclusions. Your path becomes more and more defined as you explore, and eventually narrative clarity emerges from the depths and drags you along via its tumultuous current.
The most significant improvement over Amnesia comes in the form of a refined user interface. Gone are the cumbersome game mechanics that wrenched us out of the experience before, and now it's cleaner and simpler and easier to navigate. The simplicity comes from the removal of items; there are hardly any. All you do is interact with the environment, and at no point are you required to pick up a box of tinder from a cupboard. When you can interact with an object or the environment, you're prompted to do so via the cursor. It's that easy.
This streamlined approach works wonders, and there's less getting in the way of the all-important immersion. You spend much of your time creeping through corridors deep under the waves, avoiding sinister threats, and trying to make forward progress towards your ultimate goal. The story unfolds at a natural pace, and it's a neat premise that asks plenty of philosophical questions of the player. Another element we liked was the length of the adventure; it felt lean, and lacked the filler you get in many other games that share the same genre.
Perhaps the most striking feature is the underwater world you inhabit and the visual style used to bring it to life. Soma looks great, from the murky sequences on the seabed, through to the dilapidated internal structures that weep water and groan under the pressure of the weight above. There's also some menacing adversaries to be stumbled upon along the way. Frictional does a great job of placing you in their sci-fi world, and the art direction is particularly strong, with disturbing visuals and harrowing imagery waiting to be discovered around every other corner. The invulnerable enemies you glimpse from behind cover and through doorways are perhaps the pinnacle in terms of visual design, the morbid artstyle encroaching further and further into the composition of the things that are out to get you.
There's genuine personality to the world, with backstory and little tidbits of information dotted around the environment in computer terminals and through an interesting take on the audiolog system that we've seen so many times in other games. While it is an option to charge through the admittedly linear story, ignoring the detail as you go, we can't recommend you do this, because the devil's in the detail, and much of the richness of Soma is revealed by delving deeper into this smartly presented setting.
One thing we didn't enjoy so much was related to the pacing of the narrative, especially at the beginning. We sussed out certain story beats ahead of their reveal, but we still had to do things in the world that were counter-intuitive to our growing understanding of the scenario (we can't elaborate on this too much without mentioning spoilers). It was this quirk that exposed the rigidity of Soma's structure, and it was frustrating being pushed into committing certain actions to advance the plot when we'd have preferred to have sought out other solutions. There's also a minor amount of rubber-banding towards the end, with enemies changing pattern based on where you are, regardless of how stealthy you've been.
In a game like this, where atmosphere is of paramount importance, audio is key, and Frictional does a decent job of creating a believable soundscape. There's some sickening sound effects in there, and they do a great job of striking fear into the player at appropriate moments. The voice over work is also of a high quality, with the central characters doing a convincing job with their delivery throughout the ten to twelve hour adventure.
What we liked best, however, was the lack of cheap scares. This is a game built entirely of tension, mystery and story, and as such we enjoyed taking our time over it, savouring each hour or two spent navigating this underwater nightmare. There's moments of genuine fear in there, sequences that we just wanted to be finished, but carried on playing through regardless. There's a philosophical edge to the narrative that elevates this above the rank and file, and although it might lack subtlety in this regard from time to time, this is still a cerebral shocker that provokes the mind as much as it does the senses. Make no mistake, Soma is a really good horror game, and if you've been out of Isolation for too long and want a title to hold you in its deathly grip during the ever lengthening autumn evenings, this is an experience well worth braving.