There’s something particularly effective about setting extraordinary events as a backdrop to people’s day-to-day lives. It punctuates the peril and embeds the emotions far better than simply sticking to explaining everything and showing off every tiny detail. Many directors have used it in sci-fi epics to drive their stories home, and most notably in this instance is Spielberg grounding his version of War of the Worlds through Tom Cruise’s desperate attempts to keep his family together. I bring that one up because right from the beginning of Somerville that’s what I felt like I was playing… albeit a version set in rural England, and where the protagonist has some mysterious alien powers transferred to him. There are a lot of synergies between that film and this game, and what’s special is that despite the familiarity, Somerville really creates a heartfelt and impressively engaging tale in its own right.
Dozing on the sofa in front of the TV, the scene in the family house could be one from any Sunday evening in the UK. Possibly full from dinner and tired from a lengthy walk with the dog, every one has fallen asleep and is missing the news report of what’s happening around the globe. When static hits the airwaves and the baby starts wandering around, it’s not long before strange lights are flashing in the sky, bangs and explosions can be heard in the distance, and the father decides to get everyone to cover in the basement. It works… sort of. A strange alien being crashes through the ceiling, wrecking the family home and rendering the father unconscious when he reaches out to make contact. Awaking an indeterminate amount of time later, he finds his family gone, though the dog has stayed, and he sets out across the deserted and hostile landscape to find those he loves. It’s a depressing and tragic tale of the fall of humanity that really hits home at times, and never decides to stray into the realms of hope and optimism. Somerville also never utters an intelligible word, leaving the visuals and movement of the characters to do the talking for them.
Our hero, who we can pretty much only call Dad throughout, inhabits a 2.5D world where the setup of Somerville is similar to other story-driven linear platform games (like Limbo or Planet Alpha), though there’s depth to the environment to allow movement in and out of the screen. This is a puzzle game first and foremost with light sources and physics being the key underpinning mechanics to grapple with. Dad has the power to reduce alien material to a liquid form, or firm it back up to solid, but only if he’s able to shine a light on it. It’s quite flexible in that he can either be holding a torch or flare to be very direct with his beam, or be touching a power switch that will illuminate every bulb in the circuit; and the puzzles make great use of combining them in interesting ways. Liquifying and solidifying objects clears your path of obstacles, or creates new paths to follow, and 90% of the game is doing that. Added in at times is a touch of stealth and using the environment to hide in shadow, which (as with all enforced stealth sections) can be a tad frustrating until you get the timings and movement right. This does manage to reinforce the danger of annihilation you’re facing though, and because the sections aren’t sustained they tend not to grate.
Somerville’s painted art style fits the bill well with a muted colour palette being used to describe the environments, and key hues and shades used to signify interactions or the level of danger. Dad is reasonably free to move where it looks like he can physically step, though there’s a touch of tank controls in play that mean lining up fully to pull a lever or grab an door to open can take a bit of fiddling around on rare occasions. There are no run or crouch options, anything outside standard walking is context sensitive depending on where you are and what’s happening in the story, and this coupled with a mostly continuous level structure means it’s easy to keep on going to see what will happen next. Of course, that comes with the drawback that the game ends up being over fairly quickly, maybe with a runtime just a bit longer than its influencing film, though there’s the chance to chapter select and go back to look for hidden trophies/achievements or experience some of the sections again. The ending in particular is definitely worth revisiting as it’s without doubt a lateral shift in concept, and has multiple ways of creating a resolution to the story.
I’m being deliberately vague with details here as it’s not a long title and giving too much of it away will spoil some of the neat surprises it has. It’s beautifully put together, hauntingly so when combined with the desolate audio, and it generates a very unique atmosphere. For those with young families it’s likely to hit you in the feels on more than one occasion when particular story beats are hit, and doubly watch out with the dog in the mix. There’s a good payoff depending on how you play out the ending, and some really clever twists during the final segments to subvert what you expect to see. Then there’s the fact it’s set in the UK and developed by a team based in Guildford who are well placed to capture the essence of the British landscapes, as well as our likely reactions to an alien invasion. If you’re looking for an engrossing puzzle game with a grounded tale to tell, then look no further than Somerville.
A PS5 review copy of Somerville was provided by JUMPSHIP’s PR team, and the game is available now on PlayStation, Xbox and PC for around £25.
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