I was enraptured from the start. A toddler ambles around a room, filled only by the light of a TV’s static, as the parents sleep on the sofa. It’s the most unlikely opening to a story about an invasion, but one that gives you all the info you need to be invested. A low-key, personal disaster movie begins in the moments that follow, and I was hooked throughout the hours that proceeded.
Somerville has clear stylistic parallels to Playdead’s work. Its 3D sidescrolling and light puzzle mechanics are similar, and the beautiful lighting effects and minimalist environments have led a lot of people to initially confuse Somerville as a Playdead game.
I know, because Somerville has a lovely sense of itself, too. There's that extended, gangly art, and there's some brilliant set-piece staging, from a sequence where you have to run from a searing searchlight in the sky to another in which you race up a tower as enemies burst out around you in the darkness. It's not even the action stuff it can do nicely: there's a great moment in the middle of the game - it feels like the middle - in which you find yourself at a makeshift hospital, one refugee amongst others. The pace slows to the plod of human recovery, of people trying to get their bearings. Breathe out.
Somerville is still very much what I guess you’d describe as an “interactive experience” rather than a “gamey game video game for gamers,” but you can wander about with a bit more freedom than I expected. This has thrown in a few unfortunate control oddities, such as the character occasionally being unwilling to do the thing you clearly know you need to do (turning a crank, for example). At worst this is mildly irritating, though – not game breaking – but unfortunately can be a slight yank out of the immersion.
Still, despite its many caves, Somerville isn’t a dark game and the atmosphere isn’t as oppressive as you might expect. It manages to say a great many hopeful things entirely without words, just with the use of some subtle sounds and animations. Whenever the protagonist takes a tumble and just needs to take a moment, clutching his sides, I feel that somewhere deep in my gamer swayback.
Minor annoyances when set against the things you get to see and the places you get to visit, perhaps. Somerville is a visual delight, taking the low-poly art style and using it to shatter a world and then send you through the remains. As a puzzle-platformer it's largely fine, but as a source of visual memories, it's often something else entirely.
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