Frictional Games kicked the horror genre in the ass with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and if you don’t believe me just look at how many indie horror games have tried to imitate it. Featuring a helpless protagonist, sanity and inventory management, an intense atmosphere, and a grim story, Amnesia became the go-to game to scare the socks off yourself. The announcement of their next game, SOMA, had understandably high expectations pinned to it for years. Much to everyone’s relief it proved to be a return to form, streamlined in a lot of ways and improved in plenty of others.
I won’t go much into SOMA’s story for risk of spoiling many of the twists, but the premise and focus are both worth discussing. You’ll find yourself stuck at the bottom of the ocean in a crumbling seabase beset by robots. These aren’t your benign BEEP BOOP robots, either. Each one thinks it’s a person, thanks to some very questionable experiments into AI and the human psyche. This quickly becomes the main thrust of the game, what it means to be a sentient being, and how we define our identity and our existence.
If that doesn’t sound very scary to you, I guess you’ve never had an existential crisis. Believe it or not, the biggest scares in the game come not from lumbering monsters or loud noises but from the revelations you uncover as you proceed. There are quite a few story beats in the game where part of the mystery is revealed of who you are or how things happened, and each is set up perfectly through environmental cues and dialog for maximum impact. There were so many moments where I sat agape at my desk, poring over the implications of what I just learned.
I mentioned dialogue, and fans of Amnesia may be shocked to discover there’s quite a bit of it in SOMA. Your protagonist is voiced and not at all shy about giving his opinion on the matters at hand. The seabase is also not nearly as empty as it might seem, with quite a few… things to converse with. Put aside any fears that this might spoil the atmosphere though, because every line of dialogue is expertly written with the overarching narrative in mind, adding to the horrible gravity of your situation. What might seem like an idle chat will soon reveal its darker side, I assure you.
This isn’t to say the whole game is just talking and pondering, of course. There are monsters, not many, but enough. Each is a little different in how it hunts you, with some being blind, some being fast, and so on. They tend to patrol in areas with loops so you can bait them into following you the long way around, or just breaking past them once they pass. None of these factors stop them from being fucking terrifying beasts that howl, shriek, gurgle, and run you down with frightful vigor. Being chased in SOMA is a heart-stopping experience, heightened by the many effective audio and visual cues designed to torment you.
All these horrors unfold in a world of impressive detail and rare atmosphere. Virtually every object can be lifted, turned, examined, and tossed, from pencils to pneumatic pumps. The computers have fully-functional interfaces, and some machines require complex interactions to use. This can add to the mounting horror as well, if you’re racing to set the pins on a circuit board while a creature is stalking you. You’ll also notice a pervasive air of decay and hopelessness, partly in how the facility is falling apart but also in some very effective world-building details you’ll come across.
Honestly there’s very little I can say that’s not radiantly positive about SOMA. There’s a B-plot that deals with the monsters and their origins that’s a bit underdeveloped, but that’s such a minor consideration in light of the incredible main story. You’ll encounter a few difficult choices to make but they don’t actually affect the game or provide branching paths, they’re just more ways to get into your head. SOMA is a completely linear game, and though it’ll last you a good 10 hours I doubt you’ll find much reason to replay it unless you feel you missed a lot of notes or details the first time around.
There are so many things that SOMA does right that it’s hard to nail down any one element, but I keep coming back to the atmosphere every time I think about it. Rarely have I ever felt so tense and so powerless as I have on the long, solitary treks across the dark ocean floor. The percolating of my dive suit, the distant cries of sea life, and the hazy glows of facility floodlights over the next rise pull me into the game in a way so few others have. And to be pulled into SOMA so completely is to experience one of the best horror games the genre has to offer.