In the wake of catastrophe, you must find the means to make your family whole again. Somerville is a sci-fi adventure grounded in the intimate repercussions of large-scale conflict. Cast your mind to games such as Limbo and Inside, both excellent titles courtesy of the studio Playdead. I say this as ex-CEO of Playdead Dino Patti has jumped ship, to co-found Jumpship, an independent game studio with animator Chris Olsen, together creating their debut title of Somerville. Dusting off (quite literally) the PS4, I was ready to immerse myself in this hand-crafted narrative experience, set to journey through perilous terrain and vivid rural landscapes, in order to unravel the mysteries of Earth’s visitors.
Note, this is a written version of our video review of Somerville – check it out below!
At A Glance
|Positives||+ Tense and foreboding atmosphere|
+ Minimalist soundscape that fits the setting well
+ Some great shots accentuating the environment
|Negatives||– Rather janky controls|
– Unexpected camera switches can be a pain
– Some performance minor issues
|Also Available On||PC, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One|
|Find out about our scoring policy here.|
The opening scene is reminiscent of a horror film, the an aerial shot following your car in a dreary environment as you weave through forests, you are already met with a sense that something isn’t quite right. The music arrangement immediately sets the tone, as it feeds into the tense unnerving atmosphere. Then, as you pull into your house and get out of the car, all seems fine, and yet the camera lingers a little too long, giving you the feeling that someone – or something – is watching you. Cue shot of a nuclear family of mum, dad, toddler and doggo, all asleep. You briefly take control of the toddler, immediately hug the dog (otherwise you need to rethink your priorities), and gauge the basic feel for the controls. This is all while, in War of the Worlds fashion, the outdoors starts to glow and grumble, and you just know it’s all about to hit the fan. Soon enough you take control of the father figure, clean up after your dumbass kid, and then BOOM!
The story is then teed up with you having touched hands with a space pilot, sparking out, and then waking up left to explore the now ruined landscape with your canine friend. It was at this point I was left with two questions, “what the hell just happened, and why on earth am I playing this at 2am?!”
Picking yourself up and dusting yourself off, you start utilising a blue glowing power that the space pilot seems to have transferred to you, allowing you to infuse light sources with that blueberry energy in order to liquify alien debris that blocks your path. It is through this, along with a solidifying power acquired later in the game, that Somerville builds the foundations of the puzzles it presents to you. Starting off with solving smaller puzzles to simply get to the next area, to eventually quite large ones that really alter terrain. For the most part, they are a means to drive the story forward, but they can be oddly placed and aren’t too challenging. However, there are some clever ones that do require a bit more lateral thinking and I really did enjoy solving those ones.
What I did find to be a let-down were the controls, where getting about the place can feel a bit janky at times. There would be some occasions where interacting with objects would either require pinpoint accuracy, while other times our guy slides a couple feet away into place. This can cause some second guessing when thinking whether you are meant to touch certain objects, mashing the button as you slip and slide, touching up every bit of terrain like an excited Steve the Monkey. The game does assist you at points, much like in many third person action games, with a faint orange colour on things indicating what you are supposed to interact with. The inaccuracy is especially a problem when it comes to the parts of the game that require you to evade enemies quickly, which thankfully, isn’t that often, and if you do die, load times aren’t that long to jump back in. Movement speed itself can be a minor annoyance, in that the game dictates how fast you move based on the situation. This can be from a slow crouch when creeping around aliens, to becoming Usain Bolt when they’ve spotted you. There is no physical no sprint button, so get used to a mild jog at an average pace.
Navigating your way through the world quickly feels very lonesome, adding to the question of “am I the last survivor on this planet? If not then where the bloody hell is everyone?” It’s not long before your furry companion fails to keep up, and you’re left with the sounds of your own footsteps, the environment, and the ever-ominous alien contingent that seem dead set on hunting you down.
Just try to resist the urge to follow the alluring purple light…
I thought that Jumpship really nailed the soundscape with Somerville, with a very minimalist approach to perfectly compliment what is happening on screen. From the sound of gentle rain as you simply meander through a forest, to the melancholy piano that plays when you find shelter and other humans, to the crescendo of horns and strings during the alien invasion. It is a very good example of “less is more”.
Speaking of “less is more”, so is the art style, where simple polygonal textures coupled with a dreary colour palette again adds to that feeling of doom and gloom. Jumpship really doesn’t hide the inspiration it takes from predecessors Limbo and Inside. The sense of scale is never lost even when traversing through tight and narrow spaces, as the camera will change angles to really show you either just how deep that cave is you’re climbing out from, or how vast the world behind you is, as you pass through more rural sections. Two of my favourite times were early on where you can simply sit on a bench on a hilltop in order to soak it all in, (be sure to take 5 and stick around for that trophy), and another later in the game where, during a chase sequence, you ascend a belltower with an aerial shot of the action unfolding below. Unfortunately though, those same camera angles can be both a gift and a curse, what they provide can so easily be swapped with frustration as your view can quickly change from one section to another in unusual ways. This can leave you stuck on small terrain you can’t see or have you going back on yourself, meaning you’ll need to change your inputs in order to continue moving in the same direction.
Somerville has been out since last November on PC and Xbox but got its release on PlayStation at the end of August this year, and I was grateful to receive a download code in order to review the game on my PS4. Now performance can be an issue, I initially thought it was just the fact that my old PS4 sounded like it was auditioning for the next fighter jet in Top Gun. However, with a bit of digging, I’ve noticed stutters and frame drops are in fact a known issue, but nothing game breaking by any means. I did in fairness encounter one soft lock in my whole playthrough that required a checkpoint restart, but otherwise the glitch gods were kind for my 4-hour run of Somerville. This included doubling back on myself using the ever-appreciated chapter select feature in order to mop up any trophies I had left. Always a sucker for that 100%, especially in a short but satisfying title. Worth noting that there are in fact 5 different endings to the game, 3 of which I stumbled upon, and the final 2 requiring more attention to certain details during your playthrough.
I really loved the general feeling of Somerville, the persistent undertone of foreboding created by the mix of the sounds, the look, and the ever-shifting pace from scene to scene. Just as you leave a quiet exploration segment, you can be met with crashing debris, the hope of finding fellow human survivors, or the alien mothership seeking you out like a filthy hobbit creeping into Mordor. As a father simply trying to find his family in the wake of a disaster, he ultimately has the power to shape the fate of the planet. Despite being a short game, I think Jumpspace has created a compelling narrative that doesn’t need a single spoken word to be told well, and even with its flaws, Somerville is a title worth picking up and jumping into.
In the interest of full disclosure, VGamingNews was provided with a copy of the game in order to conduct this review.
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