The comparisons are irresistible, sorry.
When your inspirations are this clear, developer staff are even partially from Playdead Game Studios, and you make a moody 2.5D, low polygon aesthetic platformer, your game is going to be put side-by-side with Limbo and Inside.
Luckily Somerville is a fine addition to this subgenre: a short, fulfilling experience with some polish niggles that keep it from reaching the heights of its inspiration.
Somerville starts with a War of the Worlds style alien invasion and the near total-destruction of humankind and civilisation as we know it. You, a dad, then begin an entirely wordless search for your now-lost wife and son.
Very shortly after, you gain a mysterious ability to interact with lights and either melt or harden alien substances that are scattered across the landscape. The puzzles are centred on these abilities, though they are not complex and rarely made me stop for very long.
And while there are some light puzzles, overall Somerville is a much more of a rollercoaster, theatrical experience than other games of their ilk, not only Limbo and Inside, but the Little Nightmare titles as well.
Somerville’s story is told through the environments and what happens with the dad. There’s an eeriness that pervades each location, and the art direction overall has to be my favourite part of the game, a simplicity to each scene, area and puzzle that focuses on the unspoken narrative. Somerville contains a nice combination Kentucky Route Zero style aesthetic for the environment while the main characters have a high-resolution Sega Saturn look.
Like the Playdead games, there’s something satisfying putting together the story on your own, from environment and world design, rather than spoken dialogue. That said, while those games wrapped mysteries in enigmas tied in gordian knots, Somerville has a much more straightforward story, and by the game it is relatively clear what has happened, who caused it and why.
Unfortunately I did experience a range of technical issues with Somerville on my Xbox Series X, including constant screen tearing, stutters, visible errors and crashes to the Xbox Dashboard.
While Somerville rarely demands fast-paced reflexes, it is disappointing to see what looks like a game that’s reasonably easy to run not perform at its best on Microsoft’s most powerful console. Hopefully these technical issues are fixed in future patches.
While these are the technical issues, I did also have a couple of head-scratcher moments with the puzzles too where it wasn’t obvious what I needed to do next, and only progressed through random trial and error rather than the game pointing to what needed to be done – a big difference compared to house directed and linear the game is overall.
That said, the checkpoints are plenty, there are rarely time limits, and given it is so focussed on telling one story one way, you will always work out what to do.
Simplicity is the name of Somerville.
But does it go too far to make things simple and keep the story going? While I appreciated the puzzles breaking up the story sequences, I feel like they should have gone even further. As they are, they seem to be in the game solely to lengthen the already short play length. The puzzles sit in a strange middle ground of being a large part of the game but remain slight throughout, without the accelerating complexity and impact on the story that one might expect given their prominence.
One last word – the game has multiple endings, and thankfully allows you to easily replay key moments that affect how to access these endings. Interestingly, after a straightforward linear path to the end, this is where the player is given free expression to choose how they ultimately react to this alien invasion.
Unlike many games, Somerville’s ending is the best part of the entire experience, and I encourage you to play right through to get to these best bits.
Somerville is available on Xbox and PC, including on Xbox Game Pass. This is a perfect Game Pass game, a filling snack of a game that ties itself up nicely, a great experience for a weekend session of overcoming yet another apocalypse.
Released: November 2022
Platforms reviewed: Xbox Series X|S, PC (Windows 10)
Developer: Playdead Studios