Exploring a beach bathed in purple light in Somerville

somerville review

somerville review


need to know

what is it? A narrative-driven platformer about the plight of a family during an alien invasion of Earth.

release date: November 15, 2022

Developer: jump ship
Publisher: jump ship
Comment on: RTX 2070, i7-10750H, 16GB RAM
multiplayer game? Do not
Association: Official Website(opens in a new tab)

Minutes later, Somerville’s big hit arrived. A young family—man, woman, child, dog—living in a remote farmhouse wakes up at night and falls asleep in front of the TV. You take control of the guy, go downstairs to the basement to get the dog food, and take it to the kitchen. Then boom. An explosion shakes the house, and suddenly you’re in the midst of an alien invasion.

It’s an opening scene reminiscent of a War of the Worlds drama, with pieces of red alien rock starting to fall from the sky like Zeus’ lightning spear. But from here, Somerville quickly reveals itself to be a war of the worlds, subject to flat directions, annoying puzzles, and no Tom Cruise. Immediately after the boom, it takes a convincing turn, and the obvious action of course is to run back into the basement and crouch until the bombing stops. Except that woman decides you should run for the family car and you have no choice but to follow. You walk out the front door just in time to see one of the pieces slam on the roof of your getaway car, obliterating it in an instant. What should we do now? That’s right – hiding in the basement.

(Image source: Jumpship)

This isn’t the only time you’ll encounter illogical logic in Somerville. Since this is a puzzle-based adventure, progress is always based on discovering a specific solution, but these solutions are often finicky or non-intuitive, and occasionally broken, making surviving this apocalypse Really boring. Take the next scene in the basement as an example. As the family huddled in a corner, some sort of alien spaceship burst through the roof, and a space pilot in a blue uniform plopped out of the cockpit, apparently dead. It certainly doesn’t seem like a sensible thing to do when it reaches out with a hand on its last breath, and your only option is to grab it. It then takes a minute or so to find exactly where the game wants you to stand to actually do it, and that takes all the tension out of the situation.

armed forces

You experience some kind of flashback or hallucination that leaves you stunned, and when you regain consciousness, the woman and child are gone. At least the dog is still around. You also now have a special power – a MacGuffin on your arm that allows you to turn hard red shards into blue liquid when you channel its energy through a light source. So when you touch a nearby desk lamp, its beam will now melt through the alien rock blocking the basement exit.

Later you get another arm power that has the opposite effect – crystallizes the pool of blue liquid into a hard surface, again only when mediated by a light source – these yin and yang processes add up to a flexible concept, Not to mention the rather impressive use of physics as matter dissolves and solidifies around features in the landscape. Some of the puzzles that come up are also very cleverly designed, such as when you have to flood an area with liquid and then freeze it to create a new platform, or pull a light source on a rope around an obstacle.

(Image source: Jumpship)

But as you and your canine companions traverse a devastated and desolate world, it’s hard not to feel like Somerville could have done more with this idea, even in its four- or five-hour runtime, because nothing else Not much else to pull some levers, handles and switches, and run away from some alien hunters. It’s almost as if the calculations required to make things blue and red behave in predictable ways have hobbled the level design, leaving you with so few ways to interact with the environment that the main character appears lethargic and powerless. Seeing the healthy adult refuse to process the landscape in front of him—such as climbing over small obstacles, or picking up objects that seemed useful—was frustrating because the prescribed methods of progression were so limited.

die in it

Of course, many narrative-driven games do just fine with stripped-down mechanics, but Somerville also falls short in terms of characters, story, and cinematic style. It created an uphill struggle for itself from the start by trying to construct scenes without the use of spoken or written words, as games like Playdead’s Limbo and Inside have done to great effect in the past (Jumpship’s founding Dino Patti was previously the founder of Playdead, and made these two games). However, when dealing with a family in a recognizable reality, it doesn’t make sense to conjure something creepy and otherworldly through the eyes of a lonely child. For example, there’s a strange nonchalance to the lack of crying and screaming when the bombs start falling.

Strong support for sound, animation, and cinematography could have filled the void here, but there’s very little that Somerville’s work really shines through. Its camera consistently positions itself at a cold distance from the action, while sound effects are applied selectively, failing to convey the impact, or rather, the terrifying weight of a killer robot, and the action is stiffly conservative, as if trying to Suppresses the emotional stress of the journey. For example, when the man is hurt, he’ll just hold his stomach in the ensuing scene and cough mechanically in a circular motion–the only time you want him to be silent.

(Image source: Jumpship)

There is little in the whole of Somerville that it really wants you to care about this man and his family. Sometimes, when he was separated from the dog and reunited, he barely acknowledged the poor animal’s return. Or when you finally manage to deactivate a robotic alien chasing you, there’s no tension and no room to explore the man’s relief or celebrate his triumph before the next scene. Meanwhile, a potentially strong plot gets defeated a little over halfway through the story by a lack of emotion, which inadvertently becomes hilarious.

Even one of the game’s strong features, its visual style, ends up lacking any real oomph. The game’s focus on artistic composition culminates in the first act, depicting silent rolling hills and fields, but later city streets and framing of buildings are sometimes almost as compelling. Yet even so, many of the features in these landscapes—empty cars strewn across the highway, nearby patches of abandoned refugee tents—feel like stock images from any post-apocalyptic novel. The longest single sequence in the game takes place in a gray mineshaft, and at best you might find an interesting rock formation. Somerville also doesn’t often use the 3D depth of its play areas (which it has an advantage over games like Inside) to play with perspective for dramatic effect.

Instead, the 3D depth of each scene is arguably Somerville’s biggest flaw. In a game like this, being able to maneuver around cars blocking your way is a novelty at first, but that freedom quickly becomes a headache. Like that scene in the basement where you try to grab the pilot’s hand, perspective often confuses your efforts to accomplish simple tasks. Trying to pull a lever or doorknob may prove to be such an unnecessary request that you may decide you shouldn’t be interacting with them at all. Then you waste five minutes looking for another solution, only to return from despair and find that you had the right answer all along, you just didn’t quite align it correctly.

(Image source: Jumpship)

Somerville is full of contradictions, such as the scene in the pool where you’re arbitrarily restricted to moving in a straight line, and deficiencies in clear visual communication lead to tiresome trial-and-error, especially when doing or-death-chase sequences. Various failures can also destroy your trust in its system. If you get stuck somewhere, something is probably wrong and you need to reload that part (or in some cases reinstall the entire game). For example, items aren’t behaving the way they’re supposed to, or you’re stuck on the floor. At one point, the action started running in slow motion, and on some other physics-based puzzles, after initially refusing to work, suddenly snapped into place for no apparent reason.

Somerville’s final scene has at least some mildly interesting surreal twists, exploiting the protagonist’s psychology to make you question what’s real and what’s not. But behind such an arduous journey, it was too late, and the opening rush remained a promise that never materialized. The only thing worth considering in the end is whether Somerville was an ambitious project that failed to live up to its grand vision, or whether it wasn’t an inspired idea in the first place.

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Bart Thompson
Bart is's List Writer . He is from Houston, Texas, and is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in creative writing, majoring in non-fiction writing. He likes to play The Elder Scrolls Online and learn everything about The Elder Scrolls series.