It’s hard to review horror. Horror is pretty subjective because it relies on making a connection with the viewer. It has to have some strings to pull to be effective. I’m not afraid of spiders. A horror game about spiders isn’t going to bother me much, but it could be really effective for someone else. Frictional Games has been making horror games for quite a while, and they’ve really found a formula that works. They don’t focus on the horror. It’s not the jump scares of Five Nights at Freddy’s. There are no monster closets; you’ll know something is coming for you even if you don’t know what. No, SOMA focuses on dread. They build a sense of dread, and let the dread invoke horror in the player.
In SOMA, you are Simon Jarrett. You’ve recently been in a bad car accident that killed your friend and left you brain damage and cranial bleeding. In search of help, you allow someone who’s explicitly not a doctor to begin an experimental treatment. He’ll make a xerox copy of your brain, treat it until he finds something that works, and then apply that treatment to you. The helmet comes down,the brain copying begins. When the helmet comes off, you’re in an derelict underwater station.
This raises a lot of questions, none of which I’ll provide as they’re half of the point of SOMA. I can assure you that most of the answers are unpleasant. You find them in interactions with the other things at the bottom of the sea. There’s also no lack of logs and recordings to find. Like previous Frictional Games, SOMA is about exploration of your surroundings. You’ll rummage through drawers, and poke around on the workstations still on. It’s a lot of Gone Home (which could be said got a lot of its inspiration from previous Frictional Games) with some hide-and-seek. See, there are also things down there with you that don’t want you to survive.
Some have said that the monsters are the worst part of SOMA, but (to me), they’re necessary to keeping up the tension. You never feel safe in SOMA, or at least you shouldn’t. Each of these things has a particular weakness. You’ll never kill one, but this weakness makes it easier to bypass them. They’re not hard to figure out, and there aren’t many of them to begin with. However, you will spend most of the game dreading what comes next.
That’s what SOMA nails. Dreading what comes next. You know the answer before you hear it said out loud, and you still don’t want to hear it. But it’s impossible to put down. The situation continues to get worse and you can’t help but see it to the end. It’s Frictional’s best game, and a new high standard for horror games.
I’m a huge fan of the Alien franchise. Alien is an amazing movie. The rest of them are mostly good for different reasons, but Alien is the true masterpiece. The video games based on the franchise, however, have largely focused on Aliens and beyond. It’s all marines, and pulse rifles, and “game over, man”, and usually predators too. The next most recent Alien franchise game was Aliens: Colonial Marines and it was a huge mess, but it was a straight-up action game. A bug hunt, if you will. It seemed like Sega had wasted a lot of money and time to make a game that couldn’t do any justice to the movies. Now, we have Alien: Isolation. Note the difference in title. Alien rather than Aliens. Isolation, not Marines.
There is but one alien. There are no colonial marines. There are no pulse rifles. This is a game that wants to recreate the suspense and horror of the original Alien. The game casts the player as Amanda Ripley. Amanda is the daughter of Ellen Ripley, the main character from the Alien series. Amanda’s an engineer and she joins a Weyland-Yutani crew to retrieve the flight recorder of the ship her mother disappeared from in Alien, the Nostromo, from the space station Sevastopol.
Isolation is a first-person game, but to call it a first-person shooter would be misleading. Sevastopol is inhabited with scared civilians, scavengers, maintenance androids (known as Working Joes), and an alien. Though the game provides a handful of weapons and constructable devices to combat these threats, in most cases, it’s a better idea to run and hide. In sharp contrast to every single other Alien game ever, this alien is invulnerable. It cannot be killed, only chased off or evaded. The androids are not invulnerable, but they are rather hard to kill. You will waste a lot of ammunition if you try to kill all of them. Fortunately, Sevastopol is littered with cabinets, lockers, and closets to hide in. The AI is not particularly hard to get away from, either. The alien has rather good vision and runs faster than Ripley, but the androids seemed particularly unaware of their surroundings. They were more of a threat in numbers. Human combatants seemed to have the awareness of the alien, speed of androids, and guns. In fact, I was rather put off early on in the game by the first encounter with hostile human enemies. I started the game on ‘hard’ difficulty, and as soon as anyone spotted me, I was riddled with bullets and reloading my save game. It happened about 10 times on the very first enemy encounter. I just couldn’t get around them sneakily. After I dialed the difficulty back down to medium, it was less of a problem.
This mixture of threats lead to some interesting situations. If the alien was around, it could be exploited to clear a path. Most often, if I found hostile humans, I’d use a throwable or other tool to make some noise. It would attract the alien, who would summarily clear the room of all hostile humans. Then I could swoop in, pick ammo off of the bodies, and continue on my way. This never seemed to work with androids, though. I guess the alien didn’t care about them. This ambiguity also affected the constructable items. There are a lot, such as noisemakers, smoke grenades, EMP mines, molotovs, and others. There is no tutorial, which I appreciate, but it takes some practice to learn the usefulness of each item. I never found a situation where the flashbang would’ve been more useful than any of the others. This combined with a save point system to create a lot of tension, but also at least some unneeded frustration.
You can’t save anywhere, only at emergency terminals. These terminals helpfully beep continuously, so they’re easy to find. However, there is a delay between when you use it, and when the game saves. This means that if the alien is chasing you, you can’t run to the save point to save your progress before it impales you from behind. There were also a couple situations in which the next save point is far enough away that dying before you reach felt like a real loss of progress. A particular section had me navigating a stairwell while stopping to turn on lockdown systems. The stairwell was littered with androids, and the alien was lurking around. Combat makes noise, so engaging the androids meant also engaging the alien, which I was not equipped for at that point. I died more than a few times because I had gotten two of the three lockdown systems turned on, but an android stumbled across me, and the alien ate my face in the ensuing struggle.
So the AI isn’t great, the save points suck sometimes, and the story is thin, but Alien: Isolation is fantastic to play. All of the environments are ripped straight from Alien, and amazingly detailed. Sevastopol looks lived-in and falling apart. It almost decays in front of your eyes. Every work area is filled with tools and containers. One of the best parts of Alien is that the set design is amazing and it’s just as good in Alien: Isolation. Human enemies talk to each other. Working Joes mutter to themselves constantly. The alien hisses and crawls through vents. All of the screens and monitors and computer interfaces look perfectly early eighties. The environment in Isolation is unparalleled.
This level of detail is also enhanced by the immersive controls. They’re fairly simple, but the game combines them in interesting ways. Door bars need to be removed, maintenance hatches need to be cut off with a torch, security systems need to be hacked. These are all done with two mouse keys, a use key, and the movement keys. You can look around while you’re performing most of these actions, so you can see if an android is approaching or if the alien is in the distance. Even though it was often too late to escape if you did notice such thing, being able to keep an eye out felt right for this game.
Most first-person games clock in under 10 hours. The bigger budget games can get even shorter, such as Call of Duty games. Alien: Isolation does no such thing. I clocked 15 hours into it. It may have gone on a little longer than it needed to, but I never felt like it was outstaying its welcome. In fact, the more I played, the more I wanted. After getting past the frustrating stairwell bit, I was hooked.
The bottom line is that, despite some minor flaws, Alien: Isolation is an amazing game, probably the best Alien franchise game ever.
Bonus DLC Review: I had a chance to play through the “Crew Expendable” and “Last Survivor” DLCs for Alien: Isolation before posting this review. These two DLCs are short (maybe 30 minutes each) but replicate some of the intense parts of Alien, taking place on the Nostromo and playing as members of the crew. It’s cool in the way that walking through a movie set is cool. The ship is lovingly recreated and there are audio logs from the crew scattered about. There’s not a ton of new game to play in here, but any Alien fan should play them.
I’m the rare person who likes everything about The Blair Witch. I like Book of Shadows. I like Blair Witch. If I had a chance to play the first trilogy of The Blair Witch games, chances are that I would have liked those too. Imagine my surprise when the game Blair Witch was revealed at E3 this year. It had what I wanted. Woods. Darkness. Dilapidated buildings. Even a dog! But, much like my feelings about 2016’s Blair Witch movie, this game doesn’t quite coalesce until you get to the end.
Blair Witch is a first person horror game in which you play Ellis. You have volunteered to scour the Black Hills forest for a missing boy. You brought your dog Bullet and little else. As you make your way through the woods, you find a trail of breadcrumbs that lead you closer to the boy and further into the forest.
Blair Witch follows Bloober Team’s recent forays into horror, namely Layers of Fear (a haunted house) and Observer (a cyberpunk haunted house). Layers of Fear‘s did a lot with atmosphere and loud noises because there wasn’t a whole lot of capital G Gameplay, but Observer added in some monster avoidance sections, ala SOMA, in which you could run face first into some kind of monster and die. Blair Witch throws in some portions where you are expected to look where your dog is barking and blast tree monsters with your flashlight. It’s clear that Bloober Team is trying to expand their horror horizons, but this felt kind of hokey. These parts weren’t terribly difficult or frequent, just sort of annoying.
If most of the gameplay is a progression of Bloober Team’s prior works, the rest is carried by the Blair Witch movies, namely wandering around in the woods and spooky rundown buildings. There’s no map and the feeling of being lost in the woods is really effective. Minus the hokey tree monsters, the horror mostly works. It builds effectively and, even with a companion dog, it’s hard to feel safe. This is what Bloober Team did well in Layers of Fear and Observer.
Where this game falters is in its narrative. Ellis never really becomes a sympathetic character and the story is built around slowly revealing his dark past and whether or not he can be saved. Bullet is a more sympathetic character here, and he’s a dog. The game also sort of relies on the player having seen some parts of the movies, leaning heavily on the most recent film. I knew what was going on because I’ve seen all of them, but I think a non-fan would be rather confused about a lot of the things that go unsaid. There’s also a laundry list of collectibles, and no way to go back through the game after you’ve beaten it to collect them or alter your ending. You can make game saves mid-game and return to those, but there’s no chapter select. Once you finish it, you’re going to have to play it again from the start if you’re chasing achievements.
I’m a tad disappointed. I saw a little Silent Hill 2 in the trailer, and I see a sliver of it in this game, but it’s not quite there. Hard to recommend for those who haven’t seen the Blair Witch movies, which I obviously enjoyed, but even fans may not enjoy this because of the weak antagonist and silly tree monsters. The scares are here, the tension is here, but it’s far from perfect.
Reference: Bloober Team. Blair Witch (Bloober Team, 2019)