Somerville is one of the coolest video games I’ve played in years. It’s also one of the most frustrating.
Something of a spiritual successor to 2D classics Limbo and Inside (both were developed by Playdead, whose co-founder worked on this), Somerville sees you take on the role of a man who, faced with a cataclysmic disaster, has to scramble to first save his arse, and then be reunited with his wife and son.
Like those two games, there’s a haunting simplicity to Somerville. There’s not a single word of dialogue in the whole thing, and while there are brief moments of action, most of your time with the game is spent wandering around completing basic platforming tasks and solving light puzzles.
Again, like those two games, there’s a reason for this: the slow pace and absence of distraction lets Somerville’s world wash over you, its silence and restraint leaving enough room for every scene to tell a story and every gesture to have meaning.
Unlike those two games, though, Somerville is a pain in the arse to actually play, with bugs, a lack of polish and some curious design decisions combining to sap much of the enjoyment found in just soaking up its wonderful art design.
Much of this is down to Somerville’s decision to leave 2D behind for more of a 3D adventure. Previously these kind of games worked so well because the perspective was constantly shepherding you forwards, their linear nature allowing the pacing of your adventure to be controlled and the world’s limitations made clear and obvious.
In Somerville, the world is more 3D, almost isometric in some places. I found that, given wider spaces to explore, I was often…exploring them, sometimes intentionally and more often not, constantly running into dead ends or heading towards paths that looked like they should be the way forward, but weren’t. Which sounds like a minor complaint, but it’s a big deal in a game of this type (and length, at around 4-5 hours), because there’s absolutely nothing to do if you’re not going in the right direction. There are no NPCs to chat to, nothing to collect, every second spent wandering around a screen instead of taking the designer’s intended path through it is sapping Somerville’s pacing of its potency.
Throw in a number of frustrating instadeath scenarios — where, again, every retry drains the short, tight story of its punch — and a number of glitches and bugs throughout and by the end of Somerville I’d found myself wishing this had simply been an animated film instead of a game.
Which may sound damning, but is also a backhanded compliment because despite all my issues with Somerville, I still really dug my time with it because the world and its story is the priority here, not your minute-to-minute actions. Its sci-fi designs are fantastic, its world-building utterly immersive and its cinematography, while occasionally maddening for gameplay reasons, is never anything but breath-taking to behold.
Somerville’s intro is especially memorable. I’ve seen a lot of people compare it to the opening of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and with good reason; it’s real heart-in-the-mouth stuff, generating an incredible amount of tension and suspense for what’s essentially a “walking around all the time” adventure game.
I’d even go so far as to recommend a second playthrough, because not only does your muscle memory help tighten up the game’s pacing by moving you through its stages quicker, but you can also piece together a little more of Somerville’s story, which sure does go places in the second half. You might even want to revisit some key decisions towards the end as well, since the game has three different endings depending on some decisions you make.