Somerville Review – High Highs And Technical Woes
Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC
Somerville begins with a peek into the life of a young family and their dog. Everyone fell asleep watching TV on the couch, but the curious toddler gets themselves into some inconsequential trouble, forcing the family into their routine. Both the child and dog need to be fed and the kitchen needs to be cleaned, but something feels off. In an explosive moment that truly caught me by surprise, the family is suddenly reckoning with an alien invasion. An intense, often scary adventure kicks off from there. When Somerville hits its highs and fires on all cylinders, it’s a moving spectacle, but unfortunately, technical hiccups and some unclear puzzles hold it back from being truly incredible.
To call a video game an alien invasion story might recall Space Invaders, but Somerville represents something much more intimate and human. The story mainly follows the father of this young family and examines, without any text or dialogue, what the world might look like and how you would survive if everything you knew about Earth instantly changed. You make your way through Somerville by moving along a linear path, solving environmental puzzles, and avoiding instant death at the hands of imposing enemies. By the end, I didn’t know much about the invading force, but I didn’t care because I was only interested in how to stay alive and connected to my family.
After an inciting incident sets the game in motion, the father must leave his home to find safety and take advantage of a strange newfound ability to help solve puzzles and progress. The game’s visuals and audio design are fantastic and mysterious. Bizarre sound effects paint strange explosions in the distance and the occasional light, synth orchestration and unassuming piano pieces are expertly used to punctuate scenes.
The simplistic designs of the characters and environment are striking. The world feels big despite being tangibly small, and there are plenty of moments where the camera looks out toward the horizon to frame a particularly impressive vista. The animation also feels natural and fluid… when it works.
Somerville’s biggest issue is ultimately a functional one that is sometimes easy to look past, but unfortunately, more often, impossible to ignore. Moments of emotional sincerity are undercut when a character blinks out of existence for a moment, or worse, the protagonist gets stuck in geometry while trying to solve a puzzle. I had to restart checkpoints often just to make sure things executed as they should. The bugs were particularly frustrating in the moments where I would think, “I bet that would have looked great… had it animated correctly.”
Those issues also extend to puzzle solving. Grabbing levers and switches is inconsistent and jumping up on ledges – a frequent action – is sometimes harder than it should be. Even without those issues, though, there are some puzzles whose solutions I just didn’t enjoy. An early one, for example, involved carrying an object to a specific spot that I accidentally avoided.
When Somerville is working properly, however, and the story is being delivered as it should, it leads to some of the most memorable moments in the genre. The invaders are truly scary. I teared up during at least one emotional moment, and the adventure goes places I never would have predicted and ends in a way that would make Steven Spielberg proud.
My first playthrough with Somerville was rough, but I immediately restarted the game after seeing the credits. There is no incentive to replay. No new game plus, or even added context from a second playthrough – I just wanted to experience the story again and hoped giving it a second shot would make for a more consistent experience. It did work better when I knew exactly what I was doing, but I was disappointed my first playthrough felt like a dress rehearsal.
Somerville is held back by technical shortcomings, but is full of impressive moments worth experiencing with the lights turned low and your headphones up high. The father’s adventure lingers in my mind as I reflect on what happened, and those memories do ultimately outweigh the technical shortcomings. I hope time will provide improvements to bring the game to where it deserves to be, which is high in the sky alongside the ships of the invading forces.