Even the name sounds a bit mysterious. Indeed, when I first saw the game announced, way back in June of 2017, I was extremely excited. The reason for that excitement was the people behind it – Dino Patti, co-founder of Playdead, had “jumped ship” and co-founded Jumpship, a new studio based in Guildford with UK film animator Chris Olsen.
Playdead of course, had made Limbo and the incredible INSIDE, which is one of the very few games I’ve awarded a 10 out of 10. So as one might expect, as a lover of these sorts of games, I had extremely high hopes. Were they satisfied?
Let’s find out together, in this spoiler-free XboxEra Review of Somerville.
Somerville puts you in the shoes of an everyday Dad, and possibly the tallest protagonist I’ve ever had the courtesy to control (albeit, not very well, but I’ll get into that) as he deals with a most unusual scenario – alien invasion! In a scene somewhat reminiscent of the film Arrival, giant monoliths descend from the heavens, and unfortunately, they do not appear to be peaceful.
What follows would swiftly have me descending into spoiler territory, but suffice to say Dad gets separated from the family, and sets out on a journey, not only to survive, but to find them again, against all odds. Some of the trailers have arguably spoiled or at least, teased far more than I will reveal, but I think it is fair to summarise thusly – things get weird.
When Somerville was announced, many people simply assumed the game would be something that was in a similar vein to both of the now classic titles from Playdead, but they are mistaken. It does have some similarities, but firstly, the game isn’t confined to a 2D plane, and secondly, it’s not really about puzzles or platforming, though the former does crop up every now and again.
Instead, the only real similarities I can truly draw for fans is firstly, the broad strokes, concept-art-in-motion painted style of the presentation. While the colours are somewhat muted, it is absolutely gorgeous to look at. It’s not for everyone, but it ticked the boxes for me. It’s a lovely looking game.
Secondly, is the game’s approach to storytelling. It’s all done through atmosphere, art, animation and gameplay with no voice-acting to speak of, aside from the occasional grunt or cry. It’s a very minimalist approach, and I think it mostly serves the game well here.
Intriguing Concept, Confusing Execution
I won’t mince my words with how I feel about Somerville, and I can sum it up pretty succinctly – I’m a little disappointed. There is so much incredible world building, seeds of sci-fi intrigue and interesting design on display here, but it’s let down in some key areas that simply made the game a bit frustrating to play.
Firstly, the decision to not have the player simply navigate a 2D plane with a 3D backdrop felt in some ways a mistake. It made things difficult to control with precision on several occasions, and when certain moments require me to run away at speed, I found the character getting hung up on scenery and pathing them correctly – feeling like I’m heading through a doorway, but instead hitting the side of it, which took me out of the moment. Fans of Tarsier Studios first venture into their Little Nightmares franchise will be used to the downsides of this setup, and how it feels, though they did go to great lengths to improve it for the sequel. For some reason, the main character also moves incredibly slowly, which began to irritate me after a while.
Somerville also has some inconsistent signposting on what to do or where to go next – sometimes, the game will mark a path or an object with the colour yellow in some fashion, which at the start of the game felt reliably placed and fairly obvious, and as player, I thoroughly appreciated.
However, as things progressed, that signposting for players became less frequent, more obscure and in some cases, went missing entirely. One particular section had me puzzling around with certain physics elements for some time, with an additional area and a obscure puzzle seemingly needing to be solved in order to progress. Wrong! You can just climb up here, congratulations on wasting an hour or so of your time.
The animations on display from the main character as you navigate the world are hit and miss too, with lots of gangly arms and odd positioning on occasion. Perhaps that’s what it really is like being that tall, but in truth, it just occasionally looks a bit strange. Some of the NPC characters, including the family dog, also get stuck, walking on the spot, forcing you to abandon him and just push forward. (Don’t worry, he’ll catch up)
Science Fiction Finale Fatigue
Normally, I can follow a story pretty well, honest! Heady sci-fi is my jam, and I think I get what was going on, but even once the credits rolled, I’m not entirely sure I fully understood it all. Again, I won’t spoil things in anyway here, and I’m very curious to see the discussion regarding the overall plot on forums and message boards following the games release. Again, without going in to too much detail, there are persistent, light and sci-fi-esque puzzles and obstacles throughout, and the effect used to display them in the world is very cool indeed.
Somerville is full of varied and ambitious locations, from being lost in the woods or alone in dark, foreboding cave systems, to the grand stage of a music festival long since vacated following the invasion; motorways full of abandoned vehicles as the population has fled to find shelter. It paints a bleak world, where humanity has seemingly been utterly defeated, but there are lovely little moments and seeds of hope along the way, despite being hunted by our mysterious invaders.
Charming interactions like tidying up after your child (an autopilot setting for all parents, surely?) and the way your family dog trots faithfully at your heel give the game a sombre but hopeful tone, and as more and more of the sci-fi parts of this adventure come to the forefront, the more of those human elements get left behind. In particular the finale of the game, goes way out there, and while I was initially positive at the direction, the end sequence did drag on for a bit.
A Solid First Outing
Overall, Somerville feels like great ambition being stretched a little thin, and fundamentally, the way it feels to actually play makes me wish it spent a little longer in the oven, refining and polishing the best parts. Fans of the genre, and sci-fi fans in particular will absolutely find a lot to love in this 5 hour or so adventure, but once the credits roll, you may be left feeling more than a little underwhelmed.
As the game releases Day One on to Xbox Game Pass, it’s well worth checking out.
Code provided by the developer for review.
|Reviewed On||Xbox Series X|
|Available On||Xbox One, Xbox Series, Windows PC & Steam|
|Release Date||15th November, 2022|
|Publisher||Xbox Game Studios|
|ESRB / PEGI Ratings||PEGI 7 – “Implied Violence, Fear”|