Jumpship's sci-fi adventure shows lots of talent and promise, but lacks execution and finesse.
Once I've seen the credits roll, I naturally understand why Jumpship were so cryptic regarding what Somerville is actually about. The cinematic sci-fi survival adventure builds on its own mystery from the get-go, and even dangerously plays with the likes of what you know, and with what you can do, every now and then. The way it was marketed, together with that secrecy, led many to believe that it would share a lot with Playdead's classics Limbo and Inside, like some sort of spiritual successor but, while it's true that some of the art and angles might be reminiscent of the latter, the first thing you should know is this is no cinematic puzzle platformer. And while executive producer Dino Patti's name is printed in big letters, this is mostly director Chris Olsen's idea finally turned into a video game.
Now, with that out of the way, and I think it's important because you shouldn't expect so many crate or physics-based puzzles in here, let's talk about what you actually do. This is the story of a man looking for his family in a rural area after some sort of alien invasion. It's shown from a very personal scale, which reminds me of War of the Worlds, with touches of Another World and Flashback now I'm at it. It mostly revolves around finding your way out of each section to move forward, dealing with the elements at hand in the environment in different ways. And, without spoiling it, as this man makes contact with the aliens, he acquires the power to transform some of the cubic alien matter that's covering a big part of the scenery. Both visually and mechanically, this power is the main idea Somerville brings to the table, and it generally feels good and strange, much as it isn't something we've never seen before.
However, even though we could say Somerville speaks a similar language to the aforementioned indie classics, it seems like it wouldn't get the same grades for its grammar. In other words, the execution is just not as fine, making for too many off-putting situations. Already with your early steps into the adventure (literally as the family's toddler as a narrative tutorial and then when you gain control of the protagonist proper) you realise that the character's movement through the different stages won't be a walk in the park. It's clumsy, sluggish at times, annoyingly getting stuck on a simple rock or a wire laid on the ground. It walks slow, then fast, then slow again very randomly, which makes some of the chase sequences agonising for the wrong reasons.
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Sometimes the solution is as simple as taking an exit through the scenery, but the camera is so far away, or the elements around it make it so confusing, that you won't spot it or will act blindly. And I understand what they want to convey here, I really do, but it just doesn't feel very natural or intuitive. And while there's some brilliant puzzle design for a handful of instances I won't list here involving the alien matter, it's just so easy to get stuck at apparently basic challenges because something is not fully triggered even if you know what should be done.
The technical finish of the game sadly adds to the sluggishness. It has been screen-tearing for the whole experience on Xbox Series X, which shouldn't be the case given the graphical load. It also glitched a couple of times or struggled to load, which is a pity considering it's one of the most beautiful indie games I've played this year. And that is probably why I'd recommend it to anyone into art or cinema: some of the shots are truly something else, with immersive perspectives, single-shot cam following, or really artistic choices. I've actually hit the screenshot button a lot and was absolutely wowed at how the game basically turns into a psychedelic comic tribute towards the end.
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But all in all with Somerville I've been intrigued by its weird world, then confused and annoyed as all seems too far or too vague. And it seems that it could have worked much better with some additional care and polish, and being more determined at what it's asking of the player, but the highlights don't compensate enough for the almost constant cumbersome feeling. Suffice to say that, other than the four-five better matter puzzles, what you do in the very best parts of the games is just walking, which tells a lot about Jumpship's strengths and weaknesses. It is also good in terms of narrative, but one could be bewildered at how it handles and twists the human drama for the final acts, even though it ends on a decent, open to interpretation sci-fi note.
Now I might have left you curious despite the obvious flaws, and that's how I felt for the six-hour run. Give it a go if you can (it's for example landing on Xbox Game Pass), as it tries a couple of interesting things and introduces the studio's very apparent talent, which already makes me look forward to whatever they do next.
6 / 10
Many visually striking sequences. A few ingenious concepts. An ending worthy of the genre.
Too many frustrating or inaccurate sections. It's better when you just have to walk. Abruptly abandons the family drama in favour of some (albeit great) barmy sci-fi stuff. Several technical issues.