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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

‘Somerville’ Review – A Cinematically Incredible But Mechanically Disappointing Video Game

A few years ago, there was a quiet wave of video games, indie and otherwise, that drew on the existential terror of childhood. Think of Limbo, Inside, Little Nightmares, Among the Sleep, or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. These games usually put you in the shoes of a little kid, stuck in a world that’s too big for them, with very little ability to comprehend what’s happening.

Somerville feels like one of those children actually managed to grow up, only to find that the world had expanded right along with them. It’s a minimalist puzzle game, with no dialogue and almost no text, that leaves most of its mechanics and storyline up to the player’s intuition and interpretation.

At its best, Somerville is effectively tense, particularly in its mix of mundane sights and sounds with peculiar alien geometries. It’s an impressive showcase for environmental storytelling and visual design, particularly in its first half.

Actually playing it is a little harder, as it does have a real problem with effectively conveying useful information to the player. A lot of its puzzles end up being more obtuse than difficult, and it’s got some real issues with its controls. Somerville is short, and it’s an interesting experience overall; but it frustrated me at the same time.

You play Somerville as an unnamed man who lives in the English countryside with his young family. Their lazy evening in front of the TV gets interrupted by a full-scale alien invasion, which wrecks the house and seemingly kills you.

Some time later, you wake up in the house’s basement, alone except for your dog, and with strange alien technology embedded in your arm. You’re left to try and find your family, which means picking your way through what’s left of your town, while dodging hostile drones and other hazards left behind by the invasion.

It’s worth noting at this point that Somerville, despite the pre-release hype, is an original story from a new creative team. Its writer/director Chris Olsen is a first-time game developer, who’s previously had a long career as a visual effects artist, and he’s been working on Somerville since 2014.

The early trailers for Somerville made a point of mentioning its executive producer, Dino Patti, who’s the co-founder and former CEO of the studio that developed Limbo and Inside. That led to the mistaken impression that Somerville was some kind of deliberate follow-up to one or both games. Instead, it’s more like it’s playing with the same tools.

Somerville, right from the start, is playing on a different set of fears than Inside. The first few minutes of gameplay put you in control of the protagonist’s son, who’s just barely learned how to walk, and gives you the opportunity to put yourself in serious danger all around the house while his mom and dad are asleep. It’s an effective, teeth-clenching sequence, half tutorial and half parental nightmare. (Not since What Remains of Edith Finch have I sent a small child racing towards so much imminent disaster.)

That carries forward into the next few minutes of the game, where you suddenly become one of those poor doomed extras in a disaster movie. Somerville‘s aliens enter the scene in actual monoliths that descend from the sky like God’s thumb, depicted as less an enemy to be fought and more a particularly cruel natural disaster.

It immediately pulled me in, because I wanted to see what had happened with the invasion, and what happened to these people who’d been caught in it. Unfortunately, once Somerville started having to be a video game, the problems racked up.

First off, the PC version I played had no mouse/keyboard support whatsoever, which strikes me as weird in 2022. You can’t so much as adjust the options without plugging in a controller.

Second, Somerville‘s primary mechanic involves a strange alien debris that’s covering a lot of the landscape. If you use a light source in conjunction with the device in your character’s arm, you can melt or petrify that debris. Early on, that just means getting it out of your way so you can progress.

Later, it gets a little more complex, as you can petrify the debris to lock objects in place, dissolve large volumes of it at once to effectively flood a room, or freeze a current of the stuff to give yourself enough traction to climb a hill. That comes alongside stealth sections, minecart puzzles, and the occasional chase scene, as your character has to outwit or evade the aliens’ attack drones.

There’s a certain looseness to Somerville‘s puzzle design that I really don’t care for. Some areas require a lot of simple trial and error to progress, particularly the pursuit and swimming sequences, while others have intended solutions that feel like you’ve just brute-forced it. I was stuck on one area for the better part of my weekend, and the answer turned out to be using a winch and cable in a particular way that had never come up before, and never appeared again after that.

A big part of the overall issue is that Somerville is designed to be a long series of what are effectively establishing shots. The “camera” is usually pulled back as far as it can be, which often works against the player. Interactive objects are often lit up or colored in a certain way, but there are many areas where a lever, door, or exit is hidden by distance.

I also routinely ran into an issue where my character refused to interact with an object for no obvious reason. I spent a few minutes at one point trying to figure out how to open an elevator car, on the assumption there was something I was missing, when it turned out that the protagonist just didn’t feel like grabbing the door handle.

(That could very well have been a glitch with the pre-release version of the game on Steam, of course. If that isn’t an issue with a retail copy, ignore the last paragraph.)

I did get through to the end of Somerville, when it gets really bizarre in a way that doesn’t feel entirely in step with how it begins, but I might’ve ditched it after the halfway point if I wasn’t reviewing it. It’s a cinematically incredible but mechanically disappointing game, and while it’s short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome (I cleared it in 6 hours), I did spend maybe half its running time trying to figure out puzzles that were only difficult because I had insufficient information.

If you really like these kinds of cinematic puzzle/action games, Somerville‘s worth an evening’s entertainment, but it looks a lot better than it plays.

Review code provided by Jumpship/Plan of Attack.

The post ‘Somerville’ Review – A Cinematically Incredible But Mechanically Disappointing Video Game appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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