Adventure Corner: Soma
Welcome to Adventure Corner, a column where members of the RPGamer staff can give their thoughts, impressions, and pseudo-reviews for various adventure titles that don’t come under our usual coverage. Adventure Corner is aimed at delivering opinions on a wide range of titles including visual novels, point-and-click adventures, investigative mysteries, and so forth.
In this edition of the column, Pascal waves goodbye to the light of day as he prepares to submerge himself deep into Frictional Games’ underwater thriller, Soma.
I enjoy a good horror game almost as much as a good RPG or adventure title. To that end, one of the least well-kept secrets around is developer Frictional Games’ masterpiece of terror, Amnesia. So when PlayStation Plus offered the company’s more recent Soma as a free download some months ago, it was a no-brainer for me to play it. Although I was fully prepared to turn the lights down low and get the bejeezus scared out of me, little did I know that Soma had something quite different — and far more enjoyable — in store for me.
Like its spiritual predecessors, Soma uses a free-roaming, first-person view. Players take control of Simon Jarrett, a simple guy living a normal life in present-day Toronto; all very unassuming, non-threatening stuff. During a brief intro sequence that lets players inspect Simon’s apartment and get acquainted with the controls, it is revealed that Simon was recently involved in a tragic car accident that cost his friend Ashley her life and has afflicted him with severe brain damage, fatal if left untreated. On the day the game begins, Simon has an appointment to undergo an experimental procedure with the hope of saving his life. In order to find the best way to treat Simon’s specific condition, a revolutionary brain scan is performed, creating a virtual copy of his brain that can then be used to test various therapeutic approaches until the right one is found, all with no risk to Simon himself. Guided by the player, Simon shows up to his appointment, has a seat in the scan machine, and, after various screens and sensors move into place all around him, the world goes completely black.
It is at this point that the player’s imagination is likely running haywire. Is this a take on the sci-fi classic Total Recall, with Simon receiving a new personality courtesy of a botched brain scan? Do some latent mental powers manifest themselves, possibly allowing Simon to see horrific abominations from beyond the veil of human perception? As it turns out, Frictional Games decided to go a very different route with Soma. After several moments of blackout, Simon is released from the scanning chair, but appears to suddenly be alone in the darkened room. Flipping a nearby breaker switch reignites the lights, revealing that Simon is no longer in the same room he was just in. Not only that, but after a bit of puzzle-solving to unlock the door keeping him confined — and finally resorting to brute force by throwing a chair through a nearby window and jumping through it instead — the claustrophobic hallways full of giant metal pipes, scant emergency lighting, and puddles of pooled blood on the floor spell out the simple truth: Simon, I have a feeling we’re not in Toronto anymore.
Piecing together where Simon new location is, for starters, takes a little bit of time, as he appears to be the only one left in his new surroundings. Clues can be found in the form of documents and audio logs left by the area’s previous inhabitants, or simply via some very impressive environmental storytelling players are expected to pick up on by themselves. Once the mystery of where Simon is has been lifted, new questions like “How did he get there?” and “What happened here?” will be players’ constant companions, with a new mystery ready to take the place of each one that’s solved. The level of immersion in this astounding tale set in an absolutely fantastical location is simply jaw-dropping.
The horror hasn’t been completely short-changed, either. Though other humans for Simon to meet are in short supply, something is stalking the same halls he is, tearing through chain-link barriers and short-circuiting the electrical system to cause lights to malfunction. The early hours of the game are easily the most thrilling in this regard; eventually, after a few encounters of the deadly kind, it becomes clear that running away is rather easy, and since Simon has absolutely no recourse against his adversaries, it’s entirely required. By then, the early sense of dread during exploration had been replaced with a giddy feeling of wonderment, and the occasional enemy encounters were just getting in the way of getting more story and exploration stuffed in my face, so I was all too happy to leave them behind as fast as possible. The fact that Frictional Games included a No Enemies mode is all too telling that it also realized that these encounters were holding back the outstanding rest of the game rather than helping it.
From here on out, the less revealed about the game’s plot, the better; it simply needs to be experienced by anyone who hasn’t played it yet. Suffice it to say that I made some discoveries that were nothing short of truly harrowing, and several decisions made me question the concepts of morality, mortality, and what it means to be. I simply adore games that totally suck me into their world in every way, and Soma did just that; I started it around nine or so in the evening, and before I knew it it was three in the morning and I still couldn’t think of sleep because I just wanted to see where it led next. If anything, I wish that Soma offered more ways to delve into nitty-gritty world-building: more incidental logbooks and diary entries, more audio recordings, more proof of whatever lives had been lived here before I arrived. But even without more of this content, there are some heady themes served up here — not bad for a game that I expected to serve up little more than a few jump scares.