I stalked through the underwater hallways and dilapidated facilities that made up the Pathos station that made up the world of Frictional Games' latest title, SOMA. During my time with it I've come to the realization that what was clawing at my thoughts between play times wasn't the monsters, but the world itself.
What SOMA sets out to accomplish, it does so in spades, it created an interesting dialogue and posed deeply philosophical questions about self and consciousness. Solipsism is the main subject on display and the game expertly uses game mechanics to push the point across and gives the player some truly difficult choices. For the sake of spoilers, I'll try to stay light on the details.
SOMA is setup almost exactly like its predecessors, Penumbra and Amnesia. You have a horror game with physics based puzzles and enemies to sneak past. The environments in SOMA are a huge step forward for the studio which has made leaps and bounds with its art style and graphics from game to game. These environments perfectly managed to make me absolutely dread progressing forward. Even before the lights go out and some boogeyman tries to break down a door in the beginning I was uneasy. The small area created an eery silence and general ambiance the unnerved me right off the bat. When a game makes me crouch down and stuff myself in a corner before it even lets me see a monster, it's doing something right.
Problem is, SOMA immediately dropped the ball the second I caught sight of the first “monster.” A shambling little robot, known as a Construct, making little bleeps wasn't exactly terrifying, it was almost… cute. When it spotted me it excitedly limped it's way over to me like a lost puppy as I easily outran it.
While the rest of the monsters littering the underwater facility were actually a bit creepier, you can't actually see them. While Amnesia and Penumbra encouraged players to look away from their monsters, you could actually see them through the haze of your impending insanity. But in SOMA, the screen just tears and distorts itself in an annoying fashion, neat how that ties into the story, but it's still irritating. Mainly because I need to actually glimpse where the damn thing is and what it's doing so I can learn how to avoid it.
Sometimes, the monster won't even budge from its spot, like the robot girl in the Omicron station. A situation that I staggered through by simply throwing myself at her, taking the hit so she would spawn somewhere else. That's not exactly a tactic I would think I should have to resort to in a game about avoiding monsters.
SOMA's story, characters and lore carried itself so well that I often found myself annoyed that I had to deal with creatures rather than explore the different sections of the station to unravel more of the mystery. I know I missed files and e-mails scattered about in the clinic at Theta, but I wasn't keen on trying to go through every drawer and computer looking for files as Akers stalked me through the labs.
I'm not going to pretend to know if Frictional Games felt like they needed to throw in monsters in case the story fell flat, but I know that after playing I would've much rather they didn't. Or that if monsters were necessary they should've been used for puzzles instead of the usual schtick of awkwardly avoiding them while trying to figure out where to go.
It's truly frustrating that some of the puzzles you do get your hands on are actually really good. For example, collecting the structure gel at Theta is a simple puzzle, but through completing it, you get to learn how it works and what it means to the game's world. The game's mechanics strengthened the story around it and helped me, the player, understand what this stuff was that had been dripping from every crack in the walls.
Despite large chunks of time in between enemy encounters, it didn't help with the pacing of the game. The enemies didn't add to any kind of rising action, they simply sat in my way, usually in some poorly designed network of hallways. Eliminating them altogether from the story was done so in such a limp handed way. It's literally put in your way along a straight path and is completed by basically pushing a button.
In future I'd love to see Frictional create another amazing story and world for us to explore and challenge us with puzzles, instead of relying on the tired monster formula. They can truly make some intriguing situations and keep me guessing the entire time. I'd just like to see them be courageous enough to wholly embrace their new ideas next time, trimming away what doesn't work.