THE WASHINGTON POST — The camera in Somerville is graceful. It scans objects and figures, follows them at different side distances, zooms into tight spaces and, at times, circles around for a frontal look at events.
The cinematic presence of the camera goes hand in hand with Somerville’s excellent audio-visual design. That, combined with its atypical gameplay mechanics, elevates a parochial tale of alien invasion into something more – a reminder that artists can work wonders out of otherwise clichéd material.
Initially, we are treated to sweet scenes of domesticity.
A cutscene depicts a young family – father, mother, child, and pet – returning home and settling in for an evening in front of the television.
As they doze on the couch, a news bulletin plays before the show abruptly switches to white noise, waking the toddler.
Watching the boy (now player-controlled) frolic, it’s immediately clear that Somerville is a finely animated game; the movements of the characters have an elegant economy, like those of a mime.
As expected given the pedigree of Somerville developer Jumpship. It was co-founded by PlayDead founding member Dino Patti who led the production of the indie studio’s visually stunning seminal titles, Limbo and Inside.
After leading the child on a failed expedition to see what happens, the player takes control of the father, who must tend to the starving dog. A nearby explosion puts everyone on high alert, and as you run outside you see a monolithic spacecraft suspended in the air firing fire from a group of much smaller spaceships.
Shortly after, after someone in an armored spacesuit crashes into the family home, the father approaches the person hanging from the partially collapsed ceiling and grabs the outstretched hand. The contact triggers a small explosion, leaving him in a state that his wife thinks is dead.
When we next see him, a lot of things in his immediate vicinity have changed. A solid, grayish-red substance covers the nearby area, cutting off access to the upper floor.
Following an on-screen button prompt, coils of blue energy flash across the man’s forearm, startling him awake. Guiding him to a nearby desk lamp, you discover that when he touches a light source with his new ability, the spectrum of visible light changes to a bluish hue capable of dissolving the otherworldly growth. in a rippling liquid, rendered in nice voxels.
With his dog in tow, the father embarks on a journey that takes him through farmland, through a forest, past the desolate remains of an outdoor music festival and elsewhere.
Along the way, he has to outwit predatory robots (whose look reminded me of EMMI in Metroid Dread) and patrolling spaceships that suck in every living thing in sight. There’s a bit early moment in Somerville where you run past the edge of a forest into a clearing and sneak into an abandoned tent to avoid being grabbed by one of those flying sentries.
Snuggled up in the tent, the landscape trembles under the purplish white light projected by the alien ship.
There’s an absolute grandiosity to the scene – as well as other alien encounters in the game – that works thanks to Somerville’s remarkable art direction.
Even during a second play, I was mesmerized by these encounters and the other ships because of the music and beaming lights that accompanied them. The chase sequences are offset by environmental obstacles that utilize the ability to manipulate alien substances.
One storyline shows the dad using a cheesy UFO concert prop to clear the harsh alien stuff out of his way – a visual irony that thrills me just thinking about it.
Most obstacles in the game require the player to carefully read the environment to see how to proceed.
Usually, this means finding places to hide, power sources to harness, and alien substances to manipulate.
(You get some substance changing powers back before the end). The game does a magnificent job of varying the types of obstacles players encounter, giving it a very tight pace.
Somerville reminded me of the qualities I cherish in adventure games, especially their ability to delve into the unexpected.
I enjoyed how its mechanics circumvent the usual weapons that come with sci-fi games. (An armed super-soldier shows up at one point, but things don’t end well for them.)
Somerville effortlessly pulled me in momentarily because I couldn’t wait to check out the next AV flower around the corner.
There is a sequence towards the end where the man revisits places which is particularly captivating in the way it makes the familiar strange.
That said, I was a little disappointed with the game’s final scene, which struck me as an all-too-familiar allusion to the ending of Tarkovsky’s Solaris film.
But that aside, Somerville is the best adventure game I’ve played since Little Nightmares 2.