Guest Author James Brod reviews the recently released Xbox One version of Soma by developer Frictional Games.
Minor Spoilers Follow:
Horror games are tricky to get right. For them to do what they’re meant to do, everything needs to be just perfect:the atmosphere must be creepy, sound design has to be great, and–most important of all–enemies have to instill actual fear in the player. This last part can get tricky when the player is given tons of powerful weapons that let you turn enemies into a fleshy pulp. No matter how terrifying the monster, it’s a lot less terrifying when you’re pointing a high-powered weapon at its head. In an effort to make horror games scary again, there’s a been an increasing number of games in recent years which either limit or remove your ability to fight back against foes, forcing you to run and hide instead of confronting them. While this concept has been around for awhile, it was first brought to mainstream popularity by Amnesia: The Dark Descent. With the recent release of Soma on Xbox One, it’s time to look at a game which has perfected this type of gameplay, while also having atmospheric environments, phenomenal voice acting, and a story that really makes you think about the human condition.
Soma is a sci-fi survival-horror video game from developer Frictional Games, best known for the Penumbra series and the aforementioned Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In it you play as Simon Jarett, who goes in to have his brain scanned after he was in a car accident which left him with seemingly permanent, and possibly life-threatening, brain damage. Everything is fine, until the helmet from the machine comes off, and Simon finds himself far from anywhere he would expect: in an underwater base of sorts, seemingly abandoned by people, and taken over by hostile machines wandering the halls–including some who even believe themselves to be human. I would go into greater detail, but I don’t want to give any major plot points–in fact, Soma is probably best experienced with as little fore-knowledge as possible. As the game progresses and more of the story is revealed, you’ll find yourself asking questions about what it means to be human. The story is made even better by superb voice acting from all characters, even ones you may encounter only once. It really helps you empathize with them, even if they happen to be a robot.
As previously mentioned, Soma takes place in a sprawling underwater facility sometime in the future. Something has gone wrong, and Simon Jarret is definitely not supposed to be there. It masterfully combines deep sea terror with other sci-fi horror elements. In following with the tradition of Frictional’s other titles, Soma is a story-driven, singleplayer experience. Your character is unable to fight back against enemies, so it’s advised that you avoid conflict as much as possible. Your only options are to run and hide, and Soma frequently has interesting ways you can achieve this. For instance: in some cases you can quickly run into a room and seal the door, hiding behind a desk or in a dark corner. You can also pick up and throw objects objects around the environment (lamps, soda cans, etc.) to distract enemies. This works especially well as some of the game’s enemies are blind and operate on sound alone. This means even the slightest sound can attract them–even the sound of turning your flashlight on or off will alert them to your position.
The types of enemies you encounter in Soma will range from angry machinery, to creatures so strange they will distort your vision upon glancing them. Some will attack out of opportunity, while others will actively hunt you down until you evade or trap them–or until they kill you. Most enemies make some sort of noise to make you aware of their presence. With Soma’s great sound design, I would definitely suggest wearing a headset, not just so that you are more aware of the position of enemies, but so that you can simply soak in all the sounds that come from the environment. Unlike in other survival horror games where you can quickly jump into a locker or closet to hide, in Soma or you are always vulnerable to some extent, which helps to heighten the tension. If you do find yourself injured by one of the many types of horrors that inhabit Soma, health doesn’t automatically regenerate, adding an extra layer of tension to already tense encounters.
Soma has two levels of difficulty: Normal Mode, which launched with the game, and Safe Mode, for those who want to experience the horror of Soma without most of the threats enemies provide. This Safe Mode difficulty was introduced with the Xbox One launch of the game and was subsequently released for PlayStation 4 and PC two months later. While in Normal Mode enemies are hostile, and will chase and attack you if alerted to you, health doesn’t regenerate, etc. This means you can–and will–die. Safe Mode, on the other hand, flips all of this on its head and makes the game a completely different experience, for the better in my opinion. In Safe Mode, enemies are not hostile, you don’t take damage, and you can’t die. This is not to say that enemies will not react to you and things you do. There was a mod released for PC appropriately titled “Wuss Mode” which would make enemies completely ignore you. Unlike the “Wuss Mode” mod, enemies in Soma’s offical Safe Mode will still react to you–they just don’t attack. If an enemy notices you, they will come over to check you out, but they will then go away and resume their original patrol. If you get too close, they will shove you away and back off, but this is the extent of their aggression. Some might argue that this takes away any horror that the game might offer, but I’d beg to differ: Soma is still a scary and haunting game, even without the threat of death looming over you. Soma’s enemies are still incredibly disturbing, especially the more humanoid ones, with their near constant moans of pain/anger as they shamble about aimlessly. In fact, Safe Mode helps remove some of the tedium that can occur in Normal Mode, either through repeating sections after a failure, or repeatedly having to shake off enemies that have found you–this can ruin the pacing of the game, and grow tiresome. By removing these moments, you can focus more on the story, which I feel is the strongest part of Soma.
As for technical performance, Soma runs well on Xbox One. Environments look amazing, and the sound design is great. The framerate does have a habit of dipping in rare moments, but this isn’t much of an issue. I did run into some technical issues though: I did have one crash during my one and a half playthroughs, but that was the most worrisome problem that I experienced with Soma. The transition to Xbox One has been a smooth one.
Soma is a great survival-horror game with an immersive setting, great story, sympathetic characters, and solid gameplay. Even if you aren’t a fan of horror games because you scare easily, as I admittedly do, I’d still tell you to try it out, as Safe Mode offers a great way for newer players to experience the game without some of the stress that comes with Normal Mode. And while most of Soma‘s horror lies in its atmosphere and various monsters, its story will haunt you well after completion. Soma is an essential horror experience–it shouldn’t be missed.
Soma is available now on Xbox One as well as PlayStation 4 and Steam.
UPDATE: A previous version of this review mentioned a problem with unlockingachievements. This problem has since been resolved, so that section was removed.