Somerville‘s hauntingly gorgeous atmosphere and visually impressive set-pieces aren’t enough to make up for its nebulous storytelling, uninteresting gameplay and painfully prominent technical issues. It only took me about five hours or so to roll credits on Somerville and see all of its multiple endings, but even after doing so I could not tell you a damn thing about what actually happened in the story, leaving me with more questions than answers.
Somerville is the first game from developer, Jumpship, helmed by some of the former leadership that was responsible for the cult-classics Limbo and Inside. It wouldn’t be completely unfair to compare Somerville to either of those games, but doing so would only serve to highlight how good those previous titles were and how underwhelming Somerville actually is. Just like those games, it’s a strikingly beautiful, dialogue free, puzzle-platformer, but it severely lacks the polish and direction of those titles.
Somerville starts out by upending the lives of a family and I suppose if you want to split hairs, the entire world, by having an alien invasion(?) take place and really muck up everything. The family itself gets separated after the protagonist comes into contact with what I think was an alien that crashed through the roof of his home, but in doing so you’re granted the first of two powers that you’ll use throughout the game. When unlocked, the two powers allow you to interact with alien technology in two different ways: liquifying or solidifying it. In order to actually do either of those things however, you need to interact with a source of light that can project your magic-alien-aura out over a manipulatable surface. On paper this sounds way cooler than it actually is, because in practice you’re mostly just making stairs or making tunnels for you to walk over and through. There were only a few instances towards the end of the game that really did anything cool with the mechanics and even those were short lived.
While lacking in the mechanics department, Somerville is very visually captivating. I may not know much about the lore of Somerville or the circumstances surrounding the events that took place, but the game does a great job of communicating a truly dreary and hopeless world. I remember the desperate beauty of a moment when I crossed a lifeless highway, traversing over, around and through the scores of abandoned cars that littered the pavement, and made my way into what looked to be a refugee camp of some sort where the survivors of this invasion were holed up in tents that filled the landscape. As I made my way through I saw the shadows of survivors moving inside of the tents, desperately trying to avoid being seen by either myself or the giant, human-abducting monolith that hovered in the sky.
Unfortunately that beauty is wasted on the gameplay of Somerville. Most of what you do in the game involves slowly trudging from one screen to another, sometimes solving simplistic light-based puzzles, and sometimes running away from the insta-killing alien robot dogs or giant sky monolith that serve as your only sources of conflict. The lack of polish becomes really apparent when you’re trying to navigate the levels during these escape sequences because you’ll often get hitched on something in the environment that breaks your momentum, sucking the tension out of these moments by having you run through them over and over until you find the correct path forward.
Somerville isn’t outstandingly bad or anything, the gameplay is perfectly serviceable but it suffers from numerous little pain points that pop up every so often. I was intrigued the entire way through Somerville just hoping that at some point the story would make sense and give me that “aha!” moment that I was waiting for, but it never did. Instead Somerville just gets weirder and weirder, leaving me with so many moments where I wondered why I was moving forward or what my character’s motivation even was. The whole game eventually culminates in a final sequence that can result in several different endings, none of which do a great job of explaining anything about what just happened or what state the world is left in.
Somerville feels like one of those games where someone eventually will come up with a really poignant interpretation of the game that will clarify the story, or someone is going to find some obscure detail in it that will recontextualize the whole world. It’s hauntingly beautiful at times, invoking genuine feelings of dread and hopelessness as you trudge from one dystopian landscape to another. But as it stands, Somerville is little more than a visually interesting game that’s underdeveloped both in terms of mechanics and polish.