A few years ago, there was a quiet wave of video games, indie and otherwise, that drew on the existential terror of childhood. Think of Limbo, Inside, Little Nightmares, Among the Sleep, or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. These games usually put you in the shoes of a little kid, stuck in a world that’s too big for them, with very little ability to comprehend what’s happening.
In recent years, the ethos of ‘mood over mechanics,’ has been admirably championed by Playdead’s Limbo and Inside–a pair of slow-moving cinematic platformers with wordless protagonists and worlds weighed down with a pervading sense of dread. Somerville, coming from a studio set up by Playdead co-founder Dino Patti, attempts to build on this tradition, and while in some ways it succeeds, creating some incredible spectacles with the help of a distinctive visual style, there’s a little too much awkwardness to wade through between those moments.
Somerville is a delightful, delectable bite to conclude a year that will be remembered for multicourse meals. We could leave it at that, I suppose. But I’d like to pull back, one last time, to the game’s pedigree. Because beyond being an entertaining video game, Somerville carries an unusual amount of game industry significance — or baggage, depending on your angle of approach.
There’s a certain looseness to Somerville‘s puzzle design that I really don’t care for. Some areas require a lot of simple trial and error to progress, particularly the pursuit and swimming sequences, while others have intended solutions that feel like you’ve just brute-forced it. I was stuck on one area for the better part of my weekend, and the answer turned out to be using a winch and cable in a particular way that had never come up before, and never appeared again after that.
Unlike Playdead’s games, Somerville utilises a unique 3D perspective and a camera that’s controlled by the game. This means that, as with something like Silent Hill 2, the game decides when to change camera angles for maximum cinematic effect, even though unlike Silent Hill 2 your movement is still largely back and forth across the screen, with some switches to a third-person camera whereupon you’re moving deeper into a given scene (usually reserved for super-dramatic moments where you emerge onto an ocean of blue cubic waves or approach a tribunal of sentient alien monoliths).
I did get through to the end of Somerville, when it gets really bizarre in a way that doesn’t feel entirely in step with how it begins, but I might’ve ditched it after the halfway point if I wasn’t reviewing it. It’s a cinematically incredible but mechanically disappointing game, and while it’s short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome (I cleared it in 6 hours), I did spend maybe half its running time trying to figure out puzzles that were only difficult because I had insufficient information.
If you really like these kinds of cinematic puzzle/action games, Somerville‘s worth an evening’s entertainment, but it looks a lot better than it plays.
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