By Sean Ray | a&e editor
What makes us human?
That is the fundamental question asked by “SOMA,” the latest horror-adventure game from Frictional Games, the creators of such legendary titles as “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” and “Penumbra: The Black Plague.”
The plot deals with Simon, a rather average man living in modern times, who suffers from bleeding in his brain. Simon agrees to undergo an experimental new procedure, which uses an advanced form of brain scanning. Simon sits down in the scanning chair and a helmet being placed over his head … only to remove it to find himself in a rusted and partially destroyed underwater facility in the future populated by robots that believe they are humans. Now Simon must uncover the mystery of what happened to him and the rest of the world in this dark future.
Inevitably comparisons will be made between “SOMA” and “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” which remains Frictional’s most popular game thus far. Both involve a man waking up in an unfamiliar environment, both encourage the player not to look at the monsters stalking them and both do not allow the player to fight back against the monsters chasing them.
However, while “SOMA” does take the good elements from “The Dark Descent,” it also takes out the bad ones. Gone are the overly confusing puzzles, bland plot and annoying sanity system that made it impossible to hide in the dark for any length of time.
Indeed, “SOMA” seems to be something of a Frankenstein’s Monster of Frictional’s past games, taking elements from each. From “Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs,” it takes an engaging plot that poses deep philosophical questions. From “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” it takes its horror set pieces and plot structure. From the “Penumbra” trilogy, it takes its focus on characters and dialogue, rather than leaving the protagonist silent and blank.
That’s not to say the game does not have its fair share of problems. While “SOMA” does take all the best elements of other games, it never quite does them as well as the originals. “SOMA” and its monsters are not as scary as the ones in “The Dark Descent.” The plot is good, but not nearly as engaging as “A Machine for Pigs.” “SOMA” may have some interesting characters but “Penumbra’s” are better.
The game also appears to be easier than Frictional’s past games. It seems that monsters give up the moment the player is out of sight, something that occurs all too often as the monsters are mostly slower than Simon, making escapes very easy.
The game would almost lose all of its fear factor with these issues if it were not for the excellent sound design. Monsters let out very inhuman and creepy sounding noises that echo through the empty hall ways, making it seem like they are around every corner. One particularly great moment occurs early on when a broken down machine chases Simon up a flight of stairs, with the robot making loud clanking noises with every step, making the chase feel very tense and frenetic.
Overall, “SOMA” is a satisfying experience to be had and is well worth the $30 price tag, despite the problems it has. The sections where the player gets to leave the facility and explore the sea bed are absolutely gorgeous. As an added bonus, the game seems to run well on weaker computers, so do not fear if you do not have the most powerful laptop out there. While it does not surpass “The Dark Descent” in terms of quality, “SOMA” is on the same level as its predecessor and a breath of fresh air compared to many other horror games released recently.
Just remember the most important rule: play the game with the lights off, all alone and the volume on your headphones put up loud. Oh, and try not to scream too loud; you don’t want to anger your roommates after all.