Soma is abounding in frightful, compelling atmosphere, atmosphere which results in a perpetual sense of anxiety and uneasiness – though rarely sheer dread. The central explorable environment is a series of linked complexes, situated far below the surface of the churning waves of the vast Atlantic, the time being the early twenty-second century. Understanding these two attributes – PATHOS-II’s submerged nature and its relative technological advancement – is central to engaging with and appreciating the world design, wholly unique and quite ambitious; analogs are inevitably made between this game world and Bioshock’s Rapture, but enough distinctness exists here to easily distinguish the two game worlds. Reflecting this underwater society’s more futuristic dimensions, meanwhile, everything in the environment is sharply mechanized, robots and machinery having a very prominent presence, haunting, terrifying, and sometimes even gross in construction, some possessive even of basic sentience. In this robotic, advanced society, PATHOS-II’s various districts are linked by a series of pressurized tunnels, permitting, in theory, swift navigation from region to region, protection from the exaggerated pressures accompanying life below the waves. But despite this roboticsim, despite these funnels and futuristic stylings, everything presented here is believable, achievable – it is easy to imagine the eventual crafting of this type of world, though one necessarily hopes that these technologies can be enjoyed and employed above the oceans’ waves, which cannot be said of PATHOS-II, impetuses for its construction being a devastating astronomical event, a destructive comet descending upon the earth, eradicating its populous, making unlivable that which was once livable, beautiful, and tranquil; that realm of gaiety and bliss is far removed from the world of sorrow and tragedy embodied within PATHOS-II. But manifold, intellectually gifted individuals have come together here, and reasons for optimism do persist, in that an alternative world can in time be crafted, that crafting enabled by the ARK. Before such crafting can be finalized, devastation reaches these haunting tunnels and chambers. And haunted they are: the environments boast considerable immersiveness and palpable ambiance, being also rich in detail, while rather elaborate lore is communicated directly through these environments; massive are the successes here.
In a painful, frustrating admission, however, these environmental and atmospheric feats do not instantly translate towards enjoyability in exploration. Indeed, in many instances, exploration is painfully dull, mundanity dominating; boredom abounds, as Simon, the protagonist, essentially navigates and renavigates the same repetitive, visually indistinct corridors and tunnels, with very little differentiation; environments introduced in the opening hour seem recycled, the amount of changes being occasionally noticeable, though oftentimes minimal. The existence of this repetition is logical, though, in that the developers still strove for believability, had one cohesive vision in mind. It would be a baffling departure from reality for one sector of PATHOS-II to be of one architectural style while another sector just a short distance away was characterized by a radically different architectural style. But a bit of additional imagination and creativity would preserve and even enhance the joys of exploration, which are immense at the narrative’s opening but which gradually wane as that narrative progresses ever onwards; with this repetition in environment construction, the game occasionally feels like a protracted slog, though greatly disrupting this boring slowness are very compelling underwater sequences, which are actually quite abundant though never losing their sharp impactfulness. Here, in these sequences, the developers boldly display their creativity and imagination, the various organisms on the seabed oftentimes bright and vibrant in coloration, while a strange sort of beauty tinges everything. Visibility is lessened somewhat, increasing the value of the various light sources dispersed throughout the seabed. Altered sound design, wherein everything appears muffled, heightens the immersion of these sequences, which also serve to wonderfully disrupt pacing; explore the tunnels of PATHOS-II for a twenty or thirty minute spell; then navigate these relative wastelands for five or ten minutes; this frequent vacillation does wonders to heighten explorations’ strengths, this temporary staving off of environmental tedium ensuring interest does not flag entirely. An examination of these two bodies – the waters of the Atlantic and the tunnels and complexes built within its floors – points towards an enduring struggle between sometimes hostile nature and increasingly civilized man, a struggle which endures now and will indeed endure forever. Poignant statements are made even within environmental construction, the only failing being relative lack of environmental diversity. The science fiction attributes and tropes, meanwhile, greatly serve to distinguish this work from Frictional Games’s earlier work, Amnesia boldly adopting a Gothic aesthetic. These two games are linked in certain ways, then, though these environments advance a more impactful statement than anything existing in cold, gothic Castle Brenneburg.
The central narrative which occurs in PATHOS-II is a painfully, needlessly cryptic one, one characterized by periodic surges of strengths, though strengths tempered by just as many failures. The opening hour is a remarkable one, certainly, introducing the protagonist, Simon Jarrett, who some time before the narrative’s opening was involved in a devastating car crash, taking the life of his beloved while dealing him a sharp mental and physical blow – death is seemingly looming just around the corner, Simon, if matter go unchecked, sure to die within months. Expertly, too, this crash is communicated the player via a flashback, the tragic nature of this occurrence only serving to endear protagonist to player. Here, in these very early moments, the player is free to navigate Simon’s apartment, interacting with the various objects scattered throughout, reflecting the game’s larger ambitions of interactivity. Clever environmental storytelling does its work, until Simon quits the apartment and travels by subway to a scheduled appointment with a physician, said to possesses unique knowledge of Simon’s affliction, knowledge which can seemingly extend his life span. And so Simon departs eagerly. Situated in this physician’s office, Simon is promptly fashioned into a chair, heavily surrounded by monitors and other technological constructions. And then, everything is boldly and totally upended. Simon opens his eyes, and the Canada of the twenty-first century is displaced by the PATHOS-II of the early twenty-second. It is a radical, impactful departure, which engages the player from the first; here are the seeds of narrative greatness, absolutely. How precisely could such an occurrence happen? That is one of the central questions directing the entire narrative, one steeped in intrigue and mystery, involving the player emotionally and intellectually.
Simon, thrust into this exotic, hostile world, first must grapple with his new body, heavily mechanized: how much of his humanity was destroyed in the instantaneous crossing of a hundred years? The existence of this destruction is thus a distressing affair, and it is easy to identify with Simon as character, his voice acting mostly sincere, grounded, and earnest. Gradually, the cataclysmic nature of the comet’s destructive impact is communicated to the player, that occurrence being of course the instigator for all of PATHOS-II’s construction. But beyond PATHOS-II as a storytelling device, similarly central to this profound narrative is Catherine, a scientist living aboard this environment, a scientist with both knowledge and passion, zealous in her ambitions to rebirth humanity, principally through the launching of the mentioned ARK, a device which scans the minds of its would-be inhabitants, and makes an A.I. projection of them within this simulated environment: mankind can, so Catherine hopes, resalvage the joys of life as they once existed. She is a highly profound character, and while her physical body is discovered towards the narrative’s conclusion, she communicates with Simon through more artificial means, embedding herself in an “omni-tool,” which provides Simon with the necessary clearances needed to navigate PATHOS-II freely. The banter between these two characters is executed flawlessly, with subtle insertions of humor present within their dialogues, stemming largely from the detachment existing between them, he being of a time one hundred years removed from her own. She raises further questions, too, namely what is humankind’s relationship to artificial intelligence? It enables her to live on in an altered state, but is it ethically wrong to live on like at all? Was Simon wrong for travelling to that physician, searching out the ARK, all in efforts to prolong his existence? Should man play God and intervene with mortal affairs, or let the course of life progress unaltered? Here is characteristic profundity.
But many narrative missteps are made along the way, the greatest offender being the pervasive vagueness of the entire affair. Vague, abstract, and interpretive narratives can be immensely resonant and effective – consider something like Limbo or Inside, games which encourage and even demand contemplation, introspection. If those two things are rejected, the overall experience will be meaningless; accordingly, when contemplation is embraced meaningfulness can skyrocket. Soma never reaches the narrative successes characterizing those two games. Here, everything is needlessly complicated, the narrative muddled, sometimes feeling very aimless and directionless, even as that core motivation is provided the player early on: reach the ARK. Environmental storytelling is abundant, certainly, but it feels lazy when environmental storytelling is the strongest, most frequent form of narrative communication, development. True, developments stem from Simon’s discourse with Catherine, whom he fast, affectionately dubs Cat, but this precise form of plot progression is largely overshadowed. But even if the player listens to all of her dialogue, if they interact with every object in the environment, scouring it for every minute detail, answers are painfully, frustratingly elusive – the vagueness is damning, ruining an otherwise stellar narrative, with its repeated poignancies. Flashback sequences are abundant as one form of plot progression, Simon able to interact with dead or dying bodies and relive their final moments, and while these can be compelling in theory, they are somewhat overabundant, stifling their impactfulness and effectiveness. Still, they serve a vital function, typically featuring excellent voice-acting, while the telepathic link existing between these individuals and Simon raises further narrative questions, which are, expectantly, mostly skirted; answers are deprived the player. Narrative agency is lacking, too, and there is no real sense of urgency to anything; Simon merely wanders about the repetitive environments pointlessly, this repetition only periodically upset by Catherine’s speaking voice, she ultimately anchoring the narrative as its vagueness leads it astray. This narrative is characterized by swelling ambitions, which make all the more painful their fruitlessness.
Soma’s gameplay displays frequent, repeated failures, with a perpetual sense of boredom – the game is rarely enjoyable to play, rarely fostering player excitement, perhaps attributable to the gameplay’s abundant, all-consuming simplicity; gameplay depths are noticeably lacking. At the heart of it all is exploration, which fares somewhat better, owing to PATHOS-II’s excellent world-building, but, again, repetition gradually devalues these potential strengths. Puzzle-solving has a surprisingly robust presence, and these are mostly well-executed, many being logical in construction and thus enjoyable to complete. In a stroke of mastery, meanwhile, each puzzle is distinguished from another; in so many other games of this genre and others, one critical puzzle template is in place, a template which is clung to always and which is lazily recycled; Soma, with its puzzle originality, rejects this approach. Exploration and puzzle-solving, then, are occasionally engaging, though damning fetch quests having a periodic presence – travel to this portion of PATHOS-II, collect such and such object, bring it to this location: this flawed quest design is here included, emphasized. Even with the boredom and mundanity, however, exploration, puzzle-solving, do have merit and value, though this cannot be said of more hostile encounters; any time an enemy spawned, audible groans were uttered; enemy presence is exclusively defined by frustration. The enemy design is at times laughable rather than intimidating and haunting, and the game relies upon cheap tricks to enhance their frightfulness, principally through screen distortions: whenever gazing at one of these enemies for a protracted spell, whenever in close proximity to them for more than a few seconds, the screen jolts around erratically, with many static-like effects emerging to dominate the player’s view. Rather than enhancing frightfulness, this secondary effect feels intrusive, destroying immersion; rather than crafting menacing enemies, the developers relied upon parlor tricks to evoke dread. Their excellent sound design must be acknowledged, certainly, as they utter painful wails and groans, suggestive of their suffering, while these noises are a fierce reminder of their presence, but whenever placed into a position of undisturbed gaze, their menace collapses.
Enemy programming is bizarre, too, being wildly inconsistent and unpredictable. It is firmly established early on that Simon as character is weak and powerless, devoid of any weaponry or means of fighting back, necessitating stealth, a clinging to the shadows. Fair enough, this approach has been adopted countless times over, and has the potential for greatness, for evoking strong emotion. This strongness of emotion is mostly unachieved here, owing to that A.I. unpredictability, erraticness. The stealth systems, if they can be called as such, are laughably basic, similarly inconsistent. In one instance, the player can be situated in the corner of any given room, literally bathed in darkness. Despite this distance and darkness, detection is a very tangible possibility. Similarly, the player can be standing in a very visible position, say directly underneath a light source, and somehow go undetected; there is no logic or consistency here, which causes frustration to swell: the implementation of these enemies, the systems which must be wielded to circumnavigate them, are painfully and poorly executed. Their presence, meanwhile, has the tendency to destroy pacing, in that they necessitate an overall stunted traversal speed, while simultaneously, if the player is lax in their efforts at undetection, or if these “stealth” mechanics fail, Simon may die outright, necessitating the reloading of a previous checkpoint. A few times throughout the narrative, this repeated dying did occur, and it is difficult to communicate how frustrating and unfun those sequences were. As illustration, a chase breaks out, Simon forced to flee from a hasty, pursuing foe. The entire sequence is very punishing – hesitate for the briefest of seconds or falter in direction and death is a certitude, meaning the sequence will likely be replayed countless times before success is achieved. A pair of selectable difficulty modes are present, a default difficulty and a lesser one which minimizes enemy presence and threat, and while the experience may be enhanced when playing upon that lower level, the developers communicate the fact that this default difficulty is the intended difficulty, and accordingly it feels odd to play on the lower level, so the cheap A.I. was endured.
While Soma boasts rich world-design and world-building, boasts palpable atmosphere and a puzzling narrative which invites interrogation, as an experience the game fails. These failings are most attributable to the unfun nature of the entire affair. Many horror games can be described as “unfun;” consider the Outlast series of games. But in those titles, unenjoyment stems largely from dread: Miles navigates Mount Massive, the protagonist of Outlast 2 navigates cultists of great insanity. These two games, their environments, are distressing in construction; they are mentally challenging. Soma completely lacks these challenging sensations, instead feeling tedious, this tedium largely stemming from shoddy, underdeveloped gameplay mechanics. Exploration soars (initially) while puzzle-solving shows similar if lesser strengths, but outside of these two gameplay pillars, gameplay almost collapses: the enemies greatly contribute to and hasten this collapse. Boredom is perhaps the most damning description which can be levelled towards a horror game, so the word is not used lightly. But it must be applied. Narrative poignancy sporadically emerges, maintaining player interest even as urgency and direction are lacking, and the narrative generally is paradoxical in construction, compelling in some areas, frustrating in others, crypticness being the birther of that frustration. The ending especially, is a bizarre one, almost non-sensical in nature, though it is within these closing moments that the game is at its most atmospheric, the sequences transpiring in the “Abyss,” a place thousands of meters below the waters’ surface, below PATHOS-II collectively. Visibility is largely non-existent, and an overall air of oppression and hostility reigns supreme – here is an illustration of the game’s creativity. And then, this creativity is – is always – betrayed by the flawed narrative, tonally inconsistent, especially in the conclusion. All throughout is narrative bleakness and sorrow, and yet, in the closing moments overwhelming optimism emerges? Life endures for some, life which is potentially Edenic in structure? It makes no logical sense; tonal consistency is destroyed. Soma generally is characterized by such imbalances, with good and bad in equal measure. Ultimately, though, the bad supersedes the good, and while the game is far from forgettable – indeed it inspires lasting contemplation even after the credits roll – it is largely an unenjoyable one. Some players who thirst especially after narrative will find satisfaction here. But those who fiercely desire gameplay robustness will be left in the cold, unsatisfied.