An alien invasion not quite out of this world
The atmospheric and memorable 2D adventure games Inside and Limbo left a lasting impact, and perhaps can be credited with creating a new subgenre. Their dark visuals and dramatic themes resonated with players, and lacking any sort of written text or dialogue helped expand their popularity. There's been no shortage of similar releases since then, but the latest adventure – Somerville – is a somewhat unique case. It's the debut game from developer Jumpship, co-founded by Dino Patti, who was previously a co-founder of Playdead – the studio behind those very same two popular games. Somerville is different enough from those releases to avoid any direct comparisons, but as a standalone game it leaves something more to be desired.
Somerville has a very promising start. We observe a family of a man, his wife, child, and dog arriving at their countryside home. Things seem normal, as they all cozy up and fall asleep watching TV – only to be interrupted by strange events going on outside. Their home begins to shake, and an intergalactic war suddenly breaks out in the skies above. Alien pillars appear everywhere, and some begin crashing down, while another group of alien spaceships fly around shooting. The family runs to the basement for cover, but one of the aliens crashes right down to their level. It reaches out, and the man grabs its hand – revealing a vision and knocking him unconscious. He wakes up some time later, with his kid and wife missing, and alien debris everywhere. With little choice, he sets out across the ravaged landscape, hoping to reunite with them.
The game's opening really grabs your attention, at least initially. It has a very War of the Worlds feel to it, and the atmosphere is excellently executed, with a sense of fear slowly building during the initial reveal. You explore most of the game alone, with little indication that you're even heading the right way or that your family is anywhere near. However, things go downhill in the second half, as the game switches to trying to be a sci-fi adventure. You come across other survivors and even entire camps, which removes the sense of loneliness or fear, but can't interact with anyone or anything. By purely random chance, you do end up finding your family and only briefly reuniting. When you are separated a second time, it's rather contrived and silly. The dog also follows the man, and somehow is waiting for him on the other side of a lengthy detour in some underground caverns, only for it to go missing again later. There is still no writing or dialogue, which makes the experience universally accessible, however as you get to the final chapters, the developers clearly wanted to tell some kind of advanced sci-fi tale that needed a form of communication. The final hour is a collection of abstract scenarios that seem entirely removed from the rest of the adventure's tone.
As is tradition for these kinds of adventure games, you control the man as he explores 2.5D environments and occasionally runs or hides from danger, and solves traversal puzzles. Just to be different, you are usually moving from right to left of the screen. The fixed camera perspective floats around and zooms in and out as needed, and it works fine for the most part, though on a couple of occasions the transition to the next view is poorly handled and obscures visibility. For a couple of puzzles, the camera is badly positioned, so you can't tell there is an opportunity to walk in a certain direction. Walking around feels a bit clumsy, and thankfully there are no platforming elements; on a couple of occasions when you have to run from danger, it is straightforward. The levels are largely linear, though there are still moments where you may not realize which parts of the ground are walkable due to the design and there being no visual indicators.
Any interactive objects usually have a hint of yellow color on them, though that can also be a bit tricky to see at times. Interacting with the world is strictly limited for the sake of puzzles, which are usually fairly simple. You may have to flip levers to turn the rails for a cart you are pushing, open doors and windows, and push wooden planks out of the way. The game's unique puzzle elements come from the two powers the man gains over the course of the adventure. At the start, he gains a blue power, and later on a red one (activated by LT and RT). These abilities don't work on their own – they have to be combined with a light source, in order to interact with the alien debris that have been scattered across the game world. For example, you have to touch a desk lamp or an electrical transformer, and then activate your blue power – this will melt all alien debris that the light is shining upon. Then, you can use the red power and solidify that alien material.
The alien goo essentially acts like water, and is even used in this way in some scenarios, such as when you are floating in it and keep melting more, raising you up through a level. If you solidify it, it becomes walkable. The puzzles involving these two interactions are not very complex, but it's at least something a bit different, as most of the time you can't manipulate the location or direction of the light sources (such as street lights) and instead have to maneuver the puzzle around it. The puzzle variety increases later on when you get access to mobile light sources, such as a flare, letting you use your powers anywhere in a section of a level. On occasion, you encounter little alien globes that roll around and also remove the alien debris that could be blocking your way, but these moments are setup on purpose and there's no real interaction with the little guys. They also seem to act as some sort of collectible, as you will wander upon a few optional rooms where they are hanging out for some reason. Just like the narrative, the game's fairly typical puzzles give way to some dull walking in the final hours of the adventure, as well as a few minigames that perhaps go on too long.
When not solving puzzles, you may be trying to avoid danger. The menacing alien totems in the sky sometimes shine a huge purple beam that apparently sucks up other humans. You avoid this beam by hiding during special parts of the level. At other times, you may be trying to escape small and mobile alien creatures that also have vision like a spotlight. Getting noticed in either scenario is instant death and checkpoint restart – unless you're in a chase sequence, where the aliens suddenly lose their ability to aim with deadly precision. The alien behaviour is also inconsistent from a narrative perspective – sometimes it is suggested that they react to any movement or sound, but many gameplay scenarios contradict that, and the enemies seem oblivious.
Somerville could have also used a bit of polish. As mentioned, the walking is slightly awkward, and on a few occasions things glitched out and the man got stuck in the environment. The developers also made the choice to have him put up his hands and try to touch any surface he is near – for the sake of immersion and realism, it's a common trope, but it looks awkward more often than not. The framerate experienced a few minor dips, and there is a notable amount of screen tearing issues across this 3 hour adventure on the Xbox Series X. For a game this linear and focused on atmosphere, the technical issues can be distracting.
The game uses a somewhat painterly aesthetic, with low-polygon character models, muted but varied colors, some dark and rainy environments, and simple world geometry. Some of the camera pans, to reveal the bigger landscape backgrounds, are decently impressive, as are the lighting and special effects. Sound design is purposefully minimalistic, but perhaps too much so on this occasion. Given that the game has life - and late on, even some action - the near silent ambiance doesn’t always fit. At times it just feels like some of the audio is missing, even for basic traversal effects. There is a nice piano track that kicks in on a few rare occasions, and the game needed more of that.
The weight of expectations may follow some creators around, but the debut title from Jumpship is able to avoid those pressures. Somerville is a decent adventure that has hiccups all of its own making, particularly around the narrative and some technical issues. The gameplay is fairly typical, and the puzzles are straightforward, even if the camera sometimes gets in the way. Fans of this style of adventure games should be satisfied, but nothing here stands out, and ultimately the title feels a bit forgettable.