Developed by Frictional Games. Published by Frictional Games. Released on Sept. 22, 2015. Available on PC (reviewed) and PlayStation 4. Review code provided by publisher.
Video game horror usually addresses three sources of fear. First you have jump scares which aim to startle you. Then there's survival horror fear, which scares by limiting combat abilities. But the third option goes further - a psychological horror that gets under your skin, challenges your sense of safety, and stays with you long after you stop playing.
SOMA, the latest from Frictional Games, is firmly in the latter camp. Not only does it refine Amnesia: The Dark Descent's horror mechanics into a leaner beast, SOMA's sci-fi future is the most unsettling environment the studio has produced. It's also Frictional's best story yet, offering a rich message that never takes away from the terror of playing. In fact, that message - questioning what it means to be human - is SOMA's most terrifying element.
SOMA is set in a futuristic underwater complex that's seen better days. At one time, robots and artificial intelligences aided staff who created wondrous futuristic technologies. But when a disaster cut the base off from the mainland, the robots inside were freed to evolve without human oversight. But this isn't some "robot uprising". The AI is focused on transforming the entire ecosystem without regard for anyone inside. Meanwhile, the robots themselves are confused about what's happening - especially those adamantly claiming to be human.
Saying more risks spoiler territory, but let me assure you - this game is absolutely worth experiencing. SOMA feels like a story co-authored by Philip K Dick and HP Lovecraft, peeking behind the meaning of humanity and finding cosmic terror in the results. It's well-paced, filled with twists, and never relies on jump scares to deliver its message. Each unsettling implication of SOMA's premise is slowly unraveled as you proceed, giving more weight to what you discover than any individual scare.
If you've played Amnesia, you're already well-versed in SOMA's gameplay. Players explore a largely abandoned game world, hiding and running from the few monsters you can encounter. Looking at or getting too close to enemies distorts your screen and drives the protagonist into a panic, usually attracting the threat to your location. But unlike Amnesia, these foes have science-fiction origins, created from unnatural mergings of technology and organic tissue. Deus Ex, this is not.
SOMA makes a few alterations to Amnesia's mechanics. First of all, the sanity system has been scrapped, so you won't go insane from hiding in the darkness. But the biggest difference is how each monster type follows different behaviors. Early creatures give chase if they can see you. Some teleport to your location, Slender-style, if you look at them. One doesn't bother you when you're completely still, while others are practically blind and hone in on sound. The real challenge - and terror - can be learning the rules for types the game neglects to explain to you. Once you've figured out the behavior, they're easier to get past - but you'll still worry as one creeps by your hiding place.
Oh, and monsters open doors. That never stops being terrifying.
Thankfully, being attacked by a monster is rarely the end. If one catches you, you'll wake up injured a few minutes after the creature wandered off. That usually gives you a chance to get your bearings - or grab whatever item it was guarding - and run before it realizes you aren't quite finished. Sometimes that experience can be more frightening than dodging enemies at full health, since you're slowly limping or crawling to safety. Take too many injuries however, and you hit a Game Over screen, so finding health stations to refresh yourself is essential.
While these refinements to Amnesia's horror formula are welcome, they do mean SOMA isn't quite as scary mechanically. Monster encounters happen just a little too frequently to completely surprise you, and the models themselves aren't very disturbing when you get a close look at them. There are genuine scares to be had, but anyone familiar with Amnesia and its imitators is well-equipped to overcome them.
On the other hand, that means you can focus on SOMA's story, the truly unsettling gem. When you're not running from monsters, you'll be piecing together the underwater base's history and coming to terrifying realizations about what's happening. Frictional did a stellar job at worldbuilding here, hiding clues in plain sight while directing you to the next essential story point. It certainly helps that SOMA's voice cast sells every character's experience - from your protagonist, to his guide, to the "human" robots you encounter. You even have a limited role in how events unfold through surprisingly uncomfortable moral choices. Most of these don't impact the ending, but each choice still lingers with you long after finishing the game. SOMA won't judge you for them - but you might in the end.
Even with a few odd quirks - you'll probably figure out SOMA's mysteries long before the clueless protagonist - this is an absolutely fantastic game. Frictional's latest title is a benchmark for the horror genre, and easily one of the best examples of video game storytelling this year. Whether you're a returning fan, or a horror newbie, SOMA deserves your immediate attention.
Bottom Line: SOMA is a worthy successor to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and sits among the best video game stories of 2015.
Recommendation: Do you play with the lights on, or lights off? It doesn't matter as long as you're playing this game today.