As someone who really likes Playdead’s work, my eager eye has been set on Somerville for quite some time. From Jumpship, the independent studio jointly conceived by Playdead’s departed co-founder Dino Patti, Somerville’s world feels captivatingly alien, creating a weighted blanket of dread that suffocates much like its spiritual predecessor’s Limbo and Inside did.
Where Limbo was a monochromatic saunter through a timeless dream space of horror and Inside targeted mind control and mankind’s reliance on technologies, Somerville riffs on cinematic sci-fi. It clearly draws inspiration from War of the Worlds for a number of its bigger set pieces as a hostile takeover by otherworldly forces unsettle a seemingly idyllic family life in rural England. Although I do have a read of my own on the game’s lingering and ambiguous climax, I suspect its grand meaning will be the source of fascinating discourse post-launch.
It reminded me, somewhat fittingly, a lot of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End in both its wild story turns and some of the ideas it appears to tackle. It’s a game that can shock, surprise, and induce panic in great waves.
With no regard for comfort, the brief narrative—which is devoid of any dialogue or narration, spoken or otherwise—twists and contorts on itself to the point where it’s nearly coherent in its own right, but ultimately it’s going to rely on a lot of interpretation from whoever experiences it.
Somerville, like Limbo and Inside before it, follows the same time-tested action-puzzle formula which, on this occasion, sees our nameless protagonist trying to escape from and survive an under-siege township through the harnessing of special abilities he’s imbued with after the visitors’ touchdown. With a simple touch, you’re able to amplify most light sources to dissolve and dissipate a murky, organic alien substance—seemingly born of technology—that blocks your path. As obtuse as the story can seem, all of Somerville’s many tests feel intuitive and I never got hung up on one thing for longer than five minutes.
Outside of brainteasers, the bulk of Somerville’s runtime is made up of terrifically curated action set pieces that feel pulled from several sci-fi epics. Frantic woodland chases, soaring spacecraft, and explosive standoffs punctuate many of Somerville’s more exciting moments. While some are reminiscent of the harrowing spider pursuit from Limbo, most of the moments require you to break the line of sight with the invaders’ red gaze. Although the controls can be cumbersome during the longer chases, which will result in some frustrating deaths, I feel like it does a few things well with regard to the character’s contextual awareness. The A button serves as a kind of catch-all for any action you perform, be it prying open gates, crank-starting generators, or taking shelter inside a porta-loo to avoid being decimated by invaders—I particularly liked that, in one specific moment, the character would automatically take cover to avoid being spotted.
In that sense, it’s animated more impressively than its predecessors, even if it’s more ambitious in both scope and appearance. Larger, more diverse play spaces and higher-polygon counts in the character models, which are still stylised with that particular indie flair, set Somerville on a rung higher than those before it.
It’s definitely nearer to Inside as far as aesthetic goes with its washed-out, bleak colour palette serving as the backdrop for the supernatural elements present, and it’s these elements that serve as the visual flair for the game. Great waves of rippling blue, and sometimes red, light course through the airwaves like spectacular Northern Lights as the block-matter ground contorts and curls underfoot. The game does a great job of signposting key items that, more often than not, serve as the interactive basis of the game’s many puzzles. They’re pretty much always orange and certainly give a good jumping-off point as you trawl the area for the way forward.
Somerville’s score is like an unsettling thrum while hopeful piano melodies punctuate the story’s more tender, or peaceful, crawls. While the composed score is clearly not, the alien warbles feel diegetic within the world despite having a melody and rhythm of their own. And with no dialogue, it’s the music that does most of the heavy lifting in the game’s more emotional beats.
Before everything is upended ten minutes into Somerville, the quiet delight of everyday life is painted with some wonderful accuracy during the game’s opening credits. There’s a dreary day, a long winding road, having the idiot box be the only light source in the living room. You begin to wonder whether losing this mundanity is a bad thing at all, and maybe that’s the point. Nevertheless, Somerville’s ability to sell the upheaval of this family’s freshly laid roots is so effective for many reasons, but one that stood out most to me was the space you’re in. By grounding Somerville where it does, the environmental artists can break up the monotony of the landscape with the horror of literal invasion.
Somerville, with its mix of quiet, wholesome and thrilling moments, is an excellent debut from Jumpship and a worthy successor to the achievements of Limbo and Inside. Although it is steeped in mystery, the fact a game this thrilling and full of moments can exist and achieve what it does in just a handful of hours is damn cool.
It feels like cheating to call Somerville a debut indie title when its creator’s individual pedigree is so strong, but it’s a tremendous spiritual successor to both Limbo and Inside. It takes an ordinary setting, quickly removes all normalcy, and takes the player on a fleeting sci-fi thrill ride that makes use of every second of your attention that it has.
A scintillating sci-fi thrill ride
Cool premise and compelling puzzles
Tremendous environmental art and level design
While it doesn't breathe, it's just five hours long
Controls can be cumbersome during the more frantic chases