Somerville has been likened to beloved indie developer Playdead’s Limbo and Inside almost nonstop since it was first unveiled, and it’s clear to see why. Developed by Jumpship, a studio founded by Playdead’s ex-CEO and co-founder, the game adopts an approach to storytelling and gameplay that fans of Playdead’s acclaimed duo will find very familiar. Of course, it brings its own new ideas to the table as well (after all, its director had nothing to do with either Inside or Limbo), and puts an interesting twist on the formula with some unique ideas. The end result? Somerville is a game that successfully captures some of the biggest strengths of its sparsely populated genre, and while it doesn’t ever reach the heights of something like Inside, it does make a strong impression nonetheless.
Like the games that have inspired it, Somerville tells its story completely wordlessly. You play as the father in a family of four, which includes a dog and a toddler, living an idyllic life on a farmhouse in a relatively remote location. In the opening minutes of the game, however, an abrupt catastrophe turns their lives upside down, as an ominous fleet of aliens attacks the planet and begins ravaging it with its terrifying powers. Amidst all the chaos, which includes the father having mysteriously acquired some alien abilities of his own, it falls to you to not only survive, but ensure that your family does as well.
"Somerville is a game that successfully captures some of the biggest strengths of its sparsely populated genre, and while it doesn’t ever reach the heights of something like Inside, it does make a strong impression nonetheless."
It’s an incredible setup for the story, because it strikes two chords very effectively. On a macro, zoomed out scale, the widespread conflict and the mystery surrounding the invasion and the aliens’ true nature and purpose is a fascinating part of the story, and Somerville ensures that it’s kept interesting as you progress further by peppering in some unexpected developments, and in the later hours of the game, some undeniably bombastic moments. Meanwhile, on a much more intimate level, the story of the family and how its struggling to survive serves as the heart and soul of Somerville, and not just because you have a dog with you (though that is a big factor).
To go further into why or how any of those two core pillars of the game’s story resonate as strongly as you do would veer a little too far into spoiler territory, which is definitely not the way to enjoy this game- but suffice it to say that the game blends those two elements very well. It also deserves props for being able to tell a completely wordless story as well as it does- which, in turn, means it leaves plenty of things open to interpretation. That, after all, is one of the biggest joys of games such as this one, and Somerville, thankfully, is very aware of that fact.
Of course, the big question that the vast majority of people will be asking – perhaps a bit unfairly for Somerville – is if the story the game tells is as impactful or memorable as the one in, say, Inside was. My recommendation would be to shoot those questions straight out of your head before you jump into Somerville. There’s a very, very good chance that no game will be able to match the genius of Inside’s story and storytelling for a long, long time, if ever, and not once did I wonder whether Somerville would be able to do so. And as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t.
"Somerville deserves props for being able to tell a completely wordless story as well as it does- which, in turn, means it leaves plenty of things open to interpretation."
Somerville’s story is juggling a lot of balls at once, and some of its core story elements feel much more pulpy than games that it will be compared to, which means that even though it adopts a similar storytelling style, with the actual content of its story, it’s trying to do completely different things. Depending on your personal tastes, you might find those things to be more engaging than similar games that have come before. I, personally, did not, even though there’s absolutely no denying that there’s a lot to love here, regardless of personal tastes and preferences.
The situation is rather similar on the gameplay front, where, once again, Somerville takes a familiar framework and adds its own ideas to expand upon it. There are no tutorials, there’s no UI, and the focus is entirely on a cinematic experience where simple inputs and mechanics make up the bulk of the gameplay. You’ll be solving simple puzzles, engaging in some light platforming, and rushing your way through the occasional intense set piece sequence. The latter in particular can be quite intense in quite a high-octane way, lending a nice balance to the narrative side of things, which often brings the tension and intensity with more intimate storytelling tools.
In addition to the simple and straightforward gameplay ideas it borrows from Limbo and Inside, however, Somerville also throws new ideas into the mix. A lot of navigation puzzles, for instance, rely on you using your aforementioned newfound alien powers to manipulate extraterrestrial obstacles. Initially, your powers are limited to an ethereal blue glow emanating from your hand that turns solid alien artifacts into a ghostly, liquid-like substance, while later on, a newly acquired ability emanates a red glow from your hand that does the opposite. Puzzles also involve finding and manipulating light sources, and using them to channel larger amounts of your own powers to remove obstacles and find new ways to proceed forward.
"There are a few times where Somerville feels unnecessarily obtuse and frustratingly dense, where it maybe goes a little too far with its hands-off and minimalistic approach. In my experience, these moments do hamper the pacing of the experience somewhat- though barring some blemishes, I was still largely impressed with Somerville’s puzzles."
For the most part, the navigation challenges and puzzles presented in Somerville are solid brain-teasers, and figuring out how to arrive at the inevitably straightforward solutions to the problems in front of you can be surprisingly satisfying. There are a few times where Somerville feels unnecessarily obtuse and frustratingly dense, where it maybe goes a little too far with its hands-off and minimalistic approach. In my experience, these moments do hamper the pacing of the experience somewhat- though barring some blemishes, I was still largely impressed with Somerville’s puzzles.
Another way Somervilla expands upon the foundations of its genre is by making movement much more free-flowing. Unlike Inside and Limbo, both of which were side-scrollers, Somerville is a game that allows full 3D movement. Yes, the camera is semi-fixed and moves on its own based on the direction you’re moving in, but your movement isn’t limited to going left or right. On paper, this sounds like an interesting expansion, but I’m not sure I’m the biggest fan. For starters, the movement feels a little wonky and inaccurate at times, and the fact that the camera often keeps getting in the way of it doesn’t do it any favours. Being able to more freely explore the small environments you find yourself in also tends to exacerbate those occasional moments of frustration I mentioned earlier- when you can’t figure out what to do or where to go, having more room for exploration but not too much to interact with while doing so isn’t exactly a good option to have.
Visually, Somerville is largely a success. The scripted camera movements I mentioned earlier have a big role to play in the experience, and the cinematography on display here is seriously impressive on a consistent basis, combining well with a strong and distinctive art style. Technically, the game does stumble a little bit, whether that’s through muddy visuals that are sometimes lacking in detail or a few minor technical issues here and there. On the whole, there are plenty of moments of striking beauty in Somerville, though it’s not a spotless experience in a visual sense either.
"There are plenty of moments of striking beauty in Somerville, though it’s not a spotless experience in a visual sense either."
Even with its issues though, Somerville is an accomplished sci-fi adventure title. Depending on how quickly you go through its story, it will last you anywhere between three and six hours, and throughout that brief runtime, it keeps throwing some fascinating things your way, whether it’s a smartly designed puzzle, heart-wrenching intimate moments, surprising story developments, or gorgeous visual vistas. Somerville might not be a genre giant, but if you’ve enjoyed similar games in the past, you’re probably going to enjoy this as well.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Captivating story; Effective, wordless storytelling; Simplistic and straightforward gameplay is largely engaging; Some gorgeous scenes and vistas.
Gameplay can be frustratingly opaque at times; Movement feels wonky and inaccurate; Some technical issues.