Friday 30 September 2016

Soma review: Man vs machine

Soma (PS4/PC); rating: 8.5/10; age: 16+

Published 13/10/2015 | 10:44

Soma: Not as friendly as it seems
Soma: Not as friendly as it seems

AN ABANDONED underwater power plant, a bewildered protagonist, a maze of corridors lined with alien gloop and blood stains – Soma seems assembled from a ragbag of sci-fi/gaming clichés.

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But it’s actually much smarter than that – a survival horror with echoes of Alien Isolation and nods to the psychological musings of Philip K Dick. Frictional Games scared the pants off us with its previous outing – Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010. Soma is something of a spiritual sequel but a more thoughtful one.

Transported to a glitchy, clanking factory named Pathos-II on the ocean floor, your everyman character Simon explores a claustrophobic world freighted with fear at every corner.

All of the humans vanished long ago – the fact they left in a rush is never a good sign. In their stead, the plant has been colonised by a freakish entity that is half-organic and half-machine, ripped from the pages of HR Giger’s most fevered designs. Simon also occasionally encounters some pathetic helper robots who’ve somehow taken on fragments of human consciousness. That cues up some harrowing scenes where turning off their power triggers an agonised response as they plead to be spared.

Soma: The robots tragically don't realise they're not human
Soma: The robots tragically don't realise they're not human

The poignant plot is otherwise best left unexplained but touches on human frailty and the inner lives of artificial intelligence.

With no way to fight the shambling monsters roaming the factory, Simon engages in an on-off life-or-death game of hide and seek while unravelling the riddle of Pathos-II. Inevitably, many of the puzzles lean heavily on the hoary trope of fixing things or turning on the power to open a new path.

Soma: The rooms are littered with dead or dying machines
Soma: The rooms are littered with dead or dying machines

The superb audio design keeps you constantly on edge, the wheezing of unseen machinery often disturbed by an ominous metal racket that sets the nerves jangling.

When you do run into some creepy enemy, cowering in a corner often seems as a valid a strategy as running full pelt in the opposite direction. It’s the one inelegant element of Soma that detracts from its carefully constructed horror tableau. At Alien Isolation had cupboards to hide in.

Perhaps it leans too often on cheap jump scares but Soma proves a memorable experience. The measured pace gives you time to absorb the eerie atmosphere and your sheer helplessness in the face of mortal danger reinforces the message of man vs machine.


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