The Somerville Review: An Intimate Look at the End of the World

It’s late in the evening. A family snoozing in front of the TV with their dog under their feet. Suddenly the TV turns static, the ground shakes. While the parents are sleeping peacefully, stir the baby. Oh no. I immediately expect nothing but the worst for a young kid seeing his game as I play Jumpship is founded by Dino Patti, himself the co-founder of Playdead, the studio behind Limbo and Inside. Both of them aren’t exactly known for treating their heroes well.

Somerville has obvious stylistic similarities to Playdead’s work. The 3D side-scrolling and light puzzle mechanics are similar, and although Playdead’s Chris Olsen worked on the art long before Patti joined him, the beautiful lighting effects and simple environments led many people to initially mistake Somerville as a Playdead game.

But tonally speaking, Somerville is in a league of its own. While I won’t spoil what happens to the little boy, Somerville’s hero is actually the father. After it is revealed that the ominous tremor is actually an alien invasion, he becomes separated from the rest of his family and is forced to set out to find them. Our protagonist is nameless and near silent, as Somerville non-verbally tells her entire story. I only hear the man groan for his exertion as he moves heavy objects or tries to recover from a hard fall. More importantly, he’s just a guy – someone who had a normal evening in front of the TV before the aliens came.

At the heart of Somerville is a supernatural power that man acquires at random, a kind of magical ray of light that can melt away any strange structures. If he touches any kind of current, such as water, a junction box, or a light, he can spread magic light across hard-to-reach areas. Later on, it also acquires a method of strengthening previously thawed structures.

However, Abi doesn’t just make his way downtown, and walks fast. It soon becomes apparent that the aliens are still out there to collect some stragglers, so you’ll have to sneak past them. Some of these aliens are formidable, which makes the moments when you encounter them some of the best in the game. There’s just something about a giant beast stomping through the woods that makes you feel small and vulnerable.

This is a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, it’s a game that cheers for its pioneer, and so do I.

And the father is weak. He could die, but Somerville doesn’t make a scene out of him. This is a game that doesn’t want its hero to die, it’s a game that cheers its pioneers on, and so am I. Both the puzzles and the sneak sequences are fairly simple, if you ever stumble it’s because you can get so angry at Daddy mode that he grabs something the way he’s supposed to. He’ll stand in front of a gate or button, squeezing and unclenching his fist like a Sim who can’t reach the dishes he wants to clean, but the tactile sensation of doing something as simple as pressing a button and pulling a cart is actually strangely fun, thanks to some amazing animations.

At its best, Somerville, just like Playdead’s games, is downright — yes, I’m going to say the forbidden word here — cinematic. She just knows how to use almost Resident Evil-like camera angles to maximum effect, and while she’s not the type to want to stand and smell the roses, she took the time to stop and stare whenever she could.

However, the Somerville sites could have been much more interesting. In turn, its mysteries may also have been more complex. There are a few notables at first, like a big deserted music festival, but most of the game takes place in caves, which to me seems like a bit of a waste. Naturally, game design affects locations, because if you’re looking for a place with go-karts, cranes, and spotlights to tinker with, mine would be an obvious choice, just not the most visually interesting.

However, despite its many caverns, Somerville is not a dark game and the atmosphere is not as oppressive as you might expect. I managed to say a lot of hopeful things completely without words, just using some subtle voice and animation. When the protagonist stumbles and just needs to take a moment, clutching his sides, I feel like he’s somewhere deep in the player’s swing.

You don’t get to spend a lot of time with the whole family, but when you do, it’s very emotional because I would have loved more of that. Because honestly, in those key moments, you’re all alone – no more than a dad scrambling in a cave, and God knows you could actually have that in any other game. But it’s the friendly little touches Somerville invests in that make it stand out, whether it’s your dog or an unexpectedly friendly face on a rescue, they’re what elevate Somerville from a simple game of hide-and-seek with aliens to something worth spending your time with.

However, Somerville couldn’t quite sell me in the final third, mainly because I wasn’t sure what was going on. Unlike a game like Signalis that intentionally obscures its intentions, it felt like a game situation that pushes against the confines of nonverbal storytelling. The way the many different endings open for Somerville, for example, feels completely arbitrary and frankly kind of boring. The endings also feel kind of abrupt, making Somerville feel like a game that has a good idea of ​​the main body of its plot, but perhaps not so much of its ending.

With no more than 6 hours of gameplay, Somerville might have taken a little longer to set up its ending more elegantly. Controversial, I know, but after all I’ve been through with this family, none of the Somerville farewells have truly satisfied me as much as the rest.


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