What do you get when you mix Limbo, Inside, War of the Worlds and an ever so slight pinch of The Matrix? Somerville, is what. An amalgamation of so many different styles and IPs probably shouldn’t combine well into anything at all. Yet, against the odds, Somerville is the successful end product of such a concoction.
Much like the indie craze of the mid 2010s, it follows off the hugely popular heels of some stellar smaller-budget darlings. Somerville was shown off to much fanfare at last year’s E3, wowing with its gorgeous art style and immersive sense of atmosphere.
The end of the world as we know it is upon us. We’re not prepared for the destruction that awaits, but with man’s best friend by our side, we may just make it yet. Does Somerville meet the same standard as those that have come before?
Inside The Cataclysm
Somerville has a seriously strong opening. As you journey home to your wife, child and trusty canine companion, a beautifully serene piece of music hangs in the air. Meeting our protagonist’s family, we’re instantly connected to this nucleus of characters.
What’s more important however, is how all of the emotion and connection is conveyed without a single voiced word and written piece of text. Somerville has no dialogue throughout its entire runtime, relying instead on contextual cues, character’s actions and superb use of lighting and animation.
The world of Somerville is subject to utter devastation in the opening sequence, separating our hero and his dog from his wife and child. Blocks of matte black machinery are plummeting into the earth with thunderous impact. Along with them, come threats of various kinds.
I’m not going to go into much more detail than this, simply because this is a story to be experienced, not read second hand. The setup is as clear as a warm summer’s day – you’ve awoken separated from your family, you have to find them. With your dog at your side, you venture out into this now decimated and under-siege world to search for them.
Somerville’s narrative stretches into some deeper levels in its final third, with twists and turns along the way. It says a lot without speaking at all, something few games really achieve this effectively. Much of it is open to interpretation and the way certain elements are conveyed will have you slightly confused right up until the conclusion.
One thing’s for sure though: you’ll be invested throughout.
Goddamn You All To… Earth
Setting out on your journey to try to make your family whole again, you’re going to be faced with some perilous barriers to overcome. This hostile takeover following the catastrophic invasion has left the world ravaged and unwelcoming to those hoping to traverse it, after all.
Most levels take place with you moving from left to right, with occasional sections having you delve under water or through caverns, for example. You’ll interact with objects with A or B to grab and hold them, either moving blockades or pushing/pulling items to help you progress.
One handy tool our out-of-his-depth hero has acquired is a device now attached to his arm which manipulates light. Initially, puzzles revolve around avoiding detection through environmental problem-solving or using light sources to melt alien material with the use of the left trigger.
Later on, you gain the ability to harden alien material using your right trigger, which sets up the core mechanics of Somerville’s gameplay. You may find yourself in a cavern, needing to release a minecart with LT before then using the cart to load up with material, harden it with a cable lowered inside, then push it down the tunnel to open a gate.
Realistically, there’s 3 main mechanics here – interact, melt, harden. Yet, the creativity of the puzzles means it feels more complex than it actually is. It’s excellent use of minimalistic gameplay input while still offering a satisfying brain teaser to get your head around.
That’s not to say all of the puzzles are perfect. The obtuse nature of the game and lack of direct cues a left me utterly stumped a few times or had me thinking “Oh… I can use the power on this now?!”. None are non-sensical like old survival horror games or anything, but a couple may stump your progress and aren’t as intuitive as they probably could be.
Watch For The Enemy, and The Geometry
Traversal is the focal point of Somerville, whether it be strolling across a war-torn rural field or navigating a precariously silent shopping mall. The environments themselves provide obstacles you’ll need to best on your quest to live out a peaceful life.
To this end, the variety of environments you’ll come across are positively gorgeous. Somerville has a film-like sense of production consistently during its runtime. It helps that its art style works so incredibly well to portray the bleakness of the situation, the hopelessness tinged with a spark of hope.
Of course, you’re going to have to evade the invading foes who benefit from excellent models, brooding with intimidating presence and ominous atmosphere. Light is once again your primary enemy – be seen in their cones of beaming vision and you’ll be promptly ended. You’re a fragile human up against an unstoppable alien force, after all.
Consequently, you’ll be spending time carefully timing your movements to avoid a gauntlet of enemies. There’s the usual genre set-pieces of running away from an omnipotent destructive laser of obliteration as well as chase scenes and other adrenaline-pumping moments of threat.
75% of the time, Somerville’s setups work brilliantly. For the other 25% however, you’ll come across one of its biggest Achilles heels – the act of moving your character.
Whether it be the depth of field making it nigh-on impossible to gauge your character’s path sometimes or the awkward input interaction occasionally not working despite being right in front of the thing I need to use, Somerville’s control issues can infrequently be a major issue. It caused me more than a dozen deaths and had me stuck on one section for a while as I simply couldn’t get the pathing right to escape.
This wasn’t a case of git gud, it was an issue of camera positioning and input activation. Fingers crossed this can be ironed out somewhat post-launch.
Serenity In The Darkness
I mentioned it before but it really is worth labouring the point of how stunning Somerville is. Artistically, this painted world of devastation is beautiful in its desolation. It sells the moments of quiet, the haunting reflections and the hopeful twists of resolution incredibly well. It harkens back to my earlier perspective that Somerville conveys everything it needs to without the need for dialogue or the written word.
People animate fluidly, your dog makes you hope to all that is holy that it won’t go the way of every other post-apocalyptic companion (we don’t talk about I Am Legend). The variety of locations you’ll visit really impressed, from the dilapidated remains of a festival, complete with light-up stage, to the ravaged streets of an assaulted town and the cold, haunting tunnels of a cavern system.
There’s some late-game sequences that are breathtaking in their creative direction and the lighting effects throughout the entire experience are phenomenal. The lack of any HUD, input direction and text boxes means you’re completely immersed from minute one to credits roll. I was thoroughly sucked into this world and was so invested I could barely pull myself away. Fantastic work on this front from the developers.
Moreover, the use of music in Somerville is handled delicately. For the most part, it’s a silent affair, nothing but the ambient effects of your actions in the world. When a musical score kicks in though, damn did I notice it. I put my controller down a couple of times to just breathe it in.
It should be noted, however, that while 99% of Somerville looks and animates with top tier aplomb, it does have some issues. I came across a glitch that had me caught in the geometry in an endless falling animation requiring a restart. A sound effect glitched out on me causing a disturbingly loud water effect to be played at almost 200% normal volume which lasted until a restart. There’s not enough of these to undo the phenomenal work on display, but it does undercut it on occasion, which is disappointing when you’re so engrossed in the overwhelming atmosphere.
Enter The Somerville
Somerville is a truly captivating experience, one which had me hooked from its heartfelt opening right up to its suspenseful conclusion. Its gameplay has more depth than you’d probably expect from something sporting so few interconnecting systems, but the minimalist approach is used supremely well to create something special and immersive.
It’s about 4 hours long, which is probably to its benefit to prevent the gameplay being stretched out beyond its limitation and to keep this condensed package full of quality. You’ll lose small portions of time navigating this apocalyptic event to some obtuse design decisions and controller problems, but none of which will hinder you too significantly in reuniting with your loved ones.
I enjoyed Somerville a great deal. It’s lived up to that E3 showing last year and then some. It’s not perfect, but it’s heartfelt, emotionally engaging and supremely immersive. Plus it looks gorgeous and has a stunning musical score (what little of it there is), making it another indie gem.
Somerville is a bleak, threatening and intimidating world to survive as you struggle to save your family. Its mix of surprisingly in-depth gameplay puzzling, beautiful art direction and genuinely heartfelt narrative glimpses of hope help it overcome what could have been burgeoning control and technical issues. You’ll struggle with more than just the invaders on occasion, but you’ll persevere willingly to take in more of this utterly compelling world.
Somerville is out on the 15th November on PC (review platform), Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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