Somerville - A Lively Limbo-Like
For the popularity that Playdead’s works, Limbo, and Inside have achieved, and the critical acclaim heaped upon them, it’s been quite unusual to see only a very small handful of developers attempt to replicate what Playdead achieved with their celebrated titles, most of which have failed to replicate the mystery, and the mood of a Playdead title. Somerville is unlike any other one of the admittedly few contenders that Limbo or Inside have had to the throne though, if nothing else than the fact it is, in part, helmed by the ex-co-founder of Playdead himself. So with that context, can Somerville get near the pinnacles that Playdead has reached, is it lacking identity due its to similarity, or does it fall flat altogether?
Where Inside and Limbo bury the game’s core thrust in layers of mystery, and you must dig deep to find it and then hope to extract meaning from there, Somerville puts the primary plotline at the forefront. Only minutes into your playing experience, disaster strikes the world as an alien force brings the planet to its knees. As the father in a family of three, you, your partner and child take cover in the basement of your home, hoping to survive the raining unidentified flying objects in the sky, peppering the earth with ships and debris, but when an alien body tears through your floor and you examine it, everything changes. You awaken well after the fall, your wife and child missing. Were they taken? Are they dead? Did the flee after they presumed that you had died? These questions drive the characters motivation as you navigate the bulk of the game searching for a sign of your loved ones. These pillars of the Someville narrative are placed at the forefront, but it is outside of this, that just lie Limbo and Inside, the other aspects of the Somerville plot are buried deeper, obscured by layers of mystery that largely come as a result of zero written, nor spoken dialogue. You will need to extract context from the events that transpire on the screen, the environments you navigate and the couple of choices that you make – it’s not an easy feat, and even now, I might be interpreting the plot in all of the wrong ways, but I’ve derived something from the experience, I’ve ridden the emotional waves, and I’ve come to my own conclusions. What you may extract from the plot may vary from person to person, but that’s only a testament to what Jumpship have crafted. The game’s final third is delivered quite quickly, with the team potentially needing to consider adding another 30-60 minutes to the experience to give the necessary moments at the game’s climax the time that they needed to adequately breathe.
While Limbo and Inside exist solely in a 2D plane, Somerville flirts with a range of shifting perspectives, from the traditional 2D sidescrolling perspective to 2.5D elements as well as swiveling the camera completely to allow some navigation in some albeit minuscule three-dimensional spaces. It would be reductive to call Somerville a walking sim, but at its core that is what it is, with some occasional puzzles dispersed along the way that see you utilising the powers you awaken with from your interaction with the fallen alien figure. You can create sci-fi electrical charges that can melt and solidify strange alien surfaces with ease, and it’s this basic mechanic that underpins the small handful of puzzles that you will need to complete on your way through the 4-6 hour experience. The puzzles themselves can be deceptively simple, and typically require little of the player but can be easily missed. What you can and will miss often though, in ways that are far less satisfying, are collision opportunities. Too often you’re never quite standing in the right place to interact with an object, often leading to you awkward crab shuffling left and right, backwards and forwards to find the sweet pot, and some objects are (perhaps unintentionally) designed in such a way that they look like they should be interacted with, but aren’t, and as such you’re in the crab shuffle for no reason.
The visual design of Somerville is not likely to blow you away, however there are some striking moments of contrasting colours that slam home the alienlike feel of the sci-fi scenario that Jumpship have crafted, while the audio design hits some higher notes. Not only is the game’s subtle use of music impactful, but the use of sound, from the roaring of water, to the occasional burst of manmade and alien-formed sounds in the world. The crackling of the electrical currents, rushing through the hand of your character ripples with great effect, and the Xbox Series’ controllers’ haptic triggers effectively pulse in synchronicity with the superb sound design, adding to the immersion.
While there are certainly some mechanical imperfections, and for some, the story may evolve no further than a simple “where’s my family” plotline, Somerville is the Limbo-like that we’ve long been looking for, and it just took some of the key characters behind Limbo to make it happen. Somerville possesses an engaging plot, a limited number of wonderfully designed puzzles that may be easy to complete, but not easy to crack, and just like Limbo and Inside, if the puzzles don’t leave you thinking, then a multi-faceted ending will.
Somerville was reviewed on Xbox Series X with code kindly provided by Xbox Australia