Somerville Review: Stuck in Limbo

A quiet evening in a cozy home. A family is asleep together on the couch as the static from the television provides ambient white noise for their slumber. It’s the type of night we take for granted until it’s too late to appreciate it anymore. Children grow up, relationships change, life gets in the way and sometimes alien monoliths descend from the heavens and wreak destruction on a once-serene land. Somerville in its best moments is evocative of War of the Worlds but unfortunately, it’s at war with itself and that makes it incredibly frustrating. As the debut title from Jumpship, a studio co-founded by Dino Patti who previously co-founded Playdead and worked on the games Limbo and Inside, while Somerville bears similarities to those titles, it falters where they don’t.

The story of Somerville sees you controlling an unnamed father as he tries to find his family after the aforementioned alien invasion. During the initial arrival of the cosmic entities, a ship crashes into your house where you’re sheltered with your wife, son, and dog. The occupant of the ship transfers a mysterious power to you before they die which renders you unconscious. Once you awake, you’re wife and son are gone, and thus begins your journey to find them.

It’s a simple story but there’s beauty in that simplicity. Trekking across a desolate world ravaged by invaders to reclaim what you hold dear. It’s made more beautiful by the striking art style. There’s a painting-like quality to it despite using rather rudimentary 3D models. The rather grim world pops with flashes of vibrant color and excellent lighting. The use of a static camera and lots of wide shots showcasing the land ensures that every frame is a painting. There’s no dialogue in the game at all so the whole story is conveyed in what you are doing and where you’re doing it. A highway filled with abandoned cars, an empty music festival, a farm filled with alien debris. Every location in the game tells a story of a world that went silent and a father determined to find his wife and child in that silence. It’s breathtaking to behold and experience and keeps you motivated to trudge through its worst elements to see the story concluded.

It’s heartbreaking then when the game throws away that narrative to become a standard sci-fi tale of the unlikely hero who must defeat the invaders. The game reaches a natural narrative end but continues on and in doing so it not only loses its way but it amplifies the game’s major flaw, the gameplay itself. Somerville is, to put it lightly, not a fun game to play. It doesn’t control well, it’s not responsive enough and the puzzles are either extraordinarily easy or ludicrously obtuse. When the story was focused I could forgive the poor gameplay because I was interested enough to put with but by the third act I was willing myself through to the end.

For starters, the character controls like a marionette puppet in that he’s awkward to move around and sometimes just doesn’t seem to follow your direction. In a game that’s so much about moving forward constantly, that’s an irritating problem. More irritating than that however was the constant refusal of the character to interact with objects I wanted him to. In nearly every area I would have to hit the interact button more than once before he finally interacted with what I wanted. There was even an early game puzzle I was stuck on because he didn’t interact with the object I needed when I tried initially which caused me to assume that object wasn’t interactable. Compounding this even further is the fact that due to the nature of the camera being pulled so far back, it can be difficult to spot objects you need or which direction you need to go. There were times when the object I needed was so small since the shot was so wide that I didn’t even know it was there, I had to lean closer up to my television to see it. The zoomed-out perspective can also cause problems with direction. It can be difficult in some scenes to see where you need to go and in a few areas whether something is on your level or a climbable ledge. It’s a very unpleasant game to maneuver around.

More frustrating than all of that are the puzzles themselves. Puzzles are mainly light based. You have the power to use lights to turn alien debris into a liquid or a solid and you do this to clear obstacles to continue. Many of these puzzles are very simple and take no thought at all. And some of them are so needlessly obtuse that they make 90s adventure games seem like a cakewalk. While most of the objects you can interact with are color-coded orange to let you know, some aren’t which causes confusion and frustration when you’re wondering why none of the color-coded objects are doing anything to solve your puzzle. This isn’t helped by the issues with interacting just not working sometimes or objects being too small to see. A few of the puzzles are based around things that you haven’t done yet, the game hasn’t shown you any indication of how it might work, and nothing like it ever happens again. I’m all for a puzzle game letting the player figure it out themselves but there need to be some contextual clues otherwise it devolves into a slog of pressing things until it works. The game has 5 endings, 4 of which are accessed by doing something that the game never even hints at the mechanics of doing so most players will only see one end unless they look up a guide. It’s just a bad way to design a puzzle adventure game.

Somerville‘s best moments are the ones where you aren’t really doing anything but pushing the stick in the correct direction. Admiring the scenery, seeing what happened to the world as you search for your family. I really wish it was all like that but the actual gameplay upends my enjoyment like an alien invasion upends a peaceful night with your loved ones.

Rating: Cruise Control

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Published by Matt Fresh

30% Water, 70% James Bond movies. Matt is a writer, gamer, film enthusiast & silly person. The winner of various fictitious awards, he's fluent in English & pop culture references.

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