Somerville Review – Peaks and technical woes

Somerville begins with a look at the lives of a young family and their dog. Everyone falls asleep watching TV on the couch, but the curious kid gets into some unnecessary trouble, forcing the whole family to follow their routine. Both the child and the dog need to be fed and the kitchen needs to be cleaned up, but something is amiss. In an explosive moment that really took me by surprise, the family suddenly reckoned with an alien invasion. An intense, often terrifying adventure begins there. When Somerville reaches its peak and fires on all cylinders, it’s a moving sight, but unfortunately technical glitches and some unclear puzzles keep it from being truly awe-inspiring surprised.

To call a video game an alien invasion story might be reminiscent of the Space Invaders, but Somerville represents something much more intimate and human. The story is mainly about the father of this young family and considers, without any text or dialogue, what the world would look like and how you would survive if everything you know about Earth the land immediately changed. You make your way through Somerville by moving along a linear path, solving environmental puzzles and avoiding instant death at the hands of mighty enemies. In the end, I don’t know much about the invading force, but I don’t care because I only care about how to stay alive and connect with my family.

After a provocative incident causes the game to begin, the father must leave his home in search of safety and utilize a strange new-found ability to help solve puzzles and progress. The visual and sound design of the game is amazing and mysterious. Weird sound effects create eerie explosions in the distance, and occasional lighting, synth orchestras, and humble piano tracks are expertly used to accentuate the scenes.

The simple designs of the characters and environments are outstanding. The world feels big even though it’s obviously small, and there are plenty of moments where the camera looks toward the horizon to create a particularly dramatic scene. The animation also feels natural and fluid… when it works.

Somerville’s biggest problem is ultimately a functional one that’s sometimes easy to overlook, but unfortunately, more often than not, can’t be ignored. Moments of emotional sincerity are garbled when a character momentarily snaps out of existence, or worse, the protagonist gets stuck in geometry trying to solve a puzzle. I frequently have to restart checkpoints just to make sure everything executes as it should. The bugs are especially annoying in those moments where I think, “I bet it would look great… if it’s animated correctly.”

Those problems also extend to puzzle solving. Grabbing the levers and switches inconsistently and jumping on ledges – a frequent act – is sometimes harder than usual. However, even without those problems, there are some puzzles with solutions that I don’t like. For example, a first involved bringing an item to a specific location that I inadvertently avoided.

However, when Somerville is up and running and the story is delivered as it should, it leads to some of the most memorable moments in the genre. The invaders are really scary. I was moved to tears in at least one emotional moment, and the adventure took place in places I never expected and ended in a way that would make Steven Spielberg proud.

My first play with Somerville was quite difficult, but I immediately restarted the game after seeing the attribution. No incentive to play again. No new games added, or even context added from the second playthrough – I just wanted to experience the story again and hopefully a second try will result in a more consistent experience. It worked better when I knew exactly what I was doing, but I was disappointed when my first playthrough felt like a costume rehearsal.

Somerville is plagued by technical shortcomings, but is full of dramatic moments worth experiencing with the light on low and your headphones high. The father’s adventures linger in my mind as I reflect on what happened, and those memories ultimately make up for the technical shortcomings. I hope time will bring improvements to bring the game to its rightful place, which is the high skies with the ships of the invading forces.


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