It’s been five years since developer Frictional Games released its cult-hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Thanks to new venues like Twitch, as well as positive word of mouth, Amnesia has become a common name to survival horror fans and even the mainstream gamer culture. SOMA is the first game it’s developed since then, and needless to say, there’s a lot of pressure and expectation riding on this game.

In part, I think Frictional Games succeeds in making something that proves they are incredibly competent when it comes to understanding what is scary and why. However, the overall gameplay makes actually playing SOMA a chore at times, and ultimately detracted from its story.

SOMA tells the story of Simon Jarrett, who is thrown into the dark, underwater horror that is Rapture Pathos-2. The means of progression revolves around navigating the environment and interacting with its objects, much like other survival horror games where there’s no option to fight back.

soma_side1It tries to do something unique and intelligent with its story instead of relying on the shocking M. Night Shyamalan-style endings that have become a trope of the survival horror genre. This deviation is even more impressive since Frictional Games has found so much success with it, and the decision to not do this is bold. The themes and conversations that make up SOMA cover many bases, including artificial intelligence, euthanasia and human nature.

The subject matter is often dark, but not overbearingly grim. I thought the actors playing Simon and his companion were able to successfully convey moments of levity and jovial banter just as well as they did moments of despair.

SOMA also relies very little on actual written text, a game design choice that I argue has held back the horror genre for years. There is some, but I found it to either be brief enough that its inclusion didn’t interrupt the momentum of SOMA. Additionally, the centric bits of the story are pretty easily understood without being required to read through endless tomes. I’m sure there was stuff I missed, and things I don’t completely understand, but I personally don’t feel as if I missed out on anything.

Part of that is due to how the main points of SOMA are very simple to grasp, but — unfortunately — I also stopped caring and just wanted to finally finish it. As interesting as the conversation SOMA wants to hold is, it’s difficult to listen because of unintuitive puzzles and monsters that are straight up badly designed.

Progression through the many stations making up Pathos-2 requires the player to solve puzzle after puzzle, which would be fine, but they often were difficult in an unsatisfying way. Puzzle games like Portal have tricked me in the past, but when I finally had that “Oh!” moment in them, understanding what I was actually supposed to do, there’s a sense of accomplishment. Most of the puzzles in SOMA left me feeling nonplussed. Solutions didn’t seem to hold much logical sense, or were just so covert that my process of solving them pretty much relied on accidentally stumbling through and hoping things went ok. The puzzles’ inclusion with the story is over formulaic as well, and constantly repeats the cycle of: Get item X. Use item X. Item X is broken. Get Item Z to repair item X. Every single win in the story was met with an immediate defeat — a one stop forward, three steps back kind of situation.


The monsters that inhabit the world of SOMA caused me even more problems than the puzzles, though, and much like the puzzles, rely too much on reusing the exact same formula. Just like the creatures present in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you are often supposed to avoid looking directly at them to avoid drawing their ire.

The first couple times I came across a monster or creature, I found it to be scary, but after I realized that it was basically a different beast, same solution, it became much less frightening. Even worse, many of the later encounters stopped being scary altogether, and only managed to evoke frustration from me. One creature in particular works by having super-sensitive hearing that required me to slowly sneak past it by taking 2 steps, and immediately holding still for the next five seconds while it reset to a calmer state. Several rooms had to be crossed at this snail’s pace, and it is confusing how something so un-fun could have gotten into the game.

“Even worse, many of the later encounters stopped being scary altogether, and only managed to evoke frustration from me”

This same creature even abandons its behavior after sneaking past it successfully at one point, and just runs down the player without warning — resulting in having to redo the process of slowly creeping past it. There’s a few other sections in SOMA where entering a new area or doing things the way the game teaches you to do them ended up screwing me over. Much like the puzzles, I thought the solution for many of these situations was a logical stretch, and even just backward at times.

It’s a shame that the gameplay in SOMA intrudes so much that it takes away from the stuff that it does so well. There’s a few moments in SOMA that genuinely surprised me with how well they were handled. Acting and writing for it came together to create some beautiful or exceptionally sad moments.

My journey through SOMA was a trudge. I wish I could say that it kept me intrigued all the way through, but the truth is that I lost a lot of my interested about halfway through. However, having finished it, I’m glad that I did. It’s an experience that I appreciate now, even though I disliked the process of getting it.