Somerville review: Limbo, Inside spiritual sequel has blockbuster scope

The first thing you should know Somervillethe spiritual sequel Limbo and Inside, is that the story is true. His predecessors lived on the opposite end of the narrative spectrum, somewhere between “Buñuelian nightmare” and “that time you smoked salvia in college and dissociated while reading Orwell.” But Somerville, well, it’s kind of normal. Initial.

The Somerville elevator pitch only needs one floor: “What if someone finally made it War of the worlds in a decent video game?” As the HG Wells novel (and its myriad variants) has reached that tenuous level of pop culture ubiquity, the early beats will sound familiar: a bit of domestic bliss punctuated by an apocalyptic alien invasion; The collapse of the Earth from the POV of the people on the ground; the remote possibility of a counter-maneuver to protect humanity from total destruction.

Instead of following the president or the sexiest scientist in the world, this time we get a man who just wants to see his wife and child again. The man has no talent for violence and no talent for survival, apart from a slightly higher ability to solve problems directly. He’s like a very smart and/or lucky ant who jumps out to stay alive during a family picnic.

From everyone War of the worlds adjustments, Somerville has most in common with Steven Spielberg’s Tom Cruise vehicle, released a few years after the 9/11 attacks. Cars erratically drive down a highway and flee in a direction where things are likely to be just as bad – maybe worse. Survivors hide in sewer pits or gather in makeshift evacuation centers. An open-air festival is abandoned, as if the revelers are entranced.

In Somerville, the hero solves puzzles by using magical light to transform materials into stone and liquid.  Here he melts down a wall to escape from his home.

Image: Jumpship via Polygoon

Since this is a video game, our man gets to walk into the night with superhuman strength. In the moments after the invasion, but before the family is pulled apart, the father has an encounter with an alien soldier. With a tap of his fingers and a period of unconsciousness, he gains the gift of transforming light into a world-bending instrument.

When he touches a desk lamp, ceiling fan, or floodlight, he can conduct blue energy through the stream, converting the natural white light into a seafoam glow that melts alien materials into a kind of living junk. Not much later he receives a red energy that, with a shock wave, solidifies the alien junk, like lava that immediately hardens into stone. The most of SomervilleThe puzzles of ‘s involve solving and recovering materials, liquefying rocks to fill a gap with molten sludge from another world, then hardening the surface so the man and his dog can stumble across the crust .

And so the father embarks on a journey through a world a bit like ours, but moodier and totally wrecked. In this way, the game looks and plays a lot like the games from Playdead. You walk left or right through a more or less 2D space, solving puzzles, hiding from unstoppable enemies and constructing a story that is performed with pantomime instead of dialogue.

In the beginning of Somerville, an alien soldier provides an average man with supernatural power.

Image: Jumpship via Polygoon

But this is not a Playdead game. Following the release of InsidePlaydead co-founder and executive producer Dino Patti left the studio and formed Jumpship, where he took on new talent. SomervilleThe director and writer of ‘s, Chris Olsen, came from the animation world, and from there he brings a more acute interest in the cinematic – not just in blockbuster set pieces, but also in the little things: the wide shot and the close-up.

So while the game presents itself as a different one at first glance Limbo or Insideas his journey progresses, the similarities rub off like a snake shedding its skin.

What do I mean by that? Basically, the game works best when it’s not a game at all. As the man leaves his demolished house, he leans on the door frame and stretches his neck, looking for his dog. When he avoids the spotlight of a colossal alien ship, the camera pulls back until he has a spot on the screen. You can tell an animator had more than usual control because every character and creature and every disaster has been given so much time and care. We’ve seen this level of detail – where characters interact with the world and the people around them – in mega budget projects like The last of us part 2but rarely in a game of this size, where prioritizing animation means prioritizing something else.

A husband and wife try to escape their home during an alien apocalypse in Somerville.

Image: Jumpship via Polygoon

Speaking of: as the adventure progresses, the creators seem to be losing interest in puzzles altogether – for the better, frankly. The puzzles are fine, finicky and a bit forgettable. In the back half, our man’s journey draws closer to the walking simulators of the 2010s, where the only real obligation is to keep moving forward. This, too, brings some irritation, as the game’s dark visuals and small character size can lead to confusion about how to interact with the world. Occasionally I understood where the game wanted me to go, but I didn’t immediately understand how it expected me to, say, climb a rock or swim across a pond. Most annoying were the handful of instant-death action sequences that cut the flow completely, forcing me to retry three or four times.

These flaws held back Inside and Limboand it’s disappointing to see them now span three games over a 12-year span, presumably by tracking creative talent from one studio to another.

To contradict myself, the problems are perhaps unavoidable side effects of this style of play. And the solution can fall just as much on the player (read: me) as on the designer. For example, the way I play this kind of platform adventure game has changed over the years. They are narratively static, built like movies and move from scene to scene in exactly the same way every time. So now I treat them like movies I have to perform. The first playthrough serves as script notation and dress rehearsal, allowing me to work out the kinks and catches. The second playthrough is where the game becomes itself, so to speak, as I play the journey with perfected pacing. I achieved my goal and in return the game is playing as it was always intended.

A man watches a crashed plane covered in alien rock in Somerville.

Image: Jumpship via Polygoon

I wonder if Somerville expect most players to have a similar experience – getting credits and starting all over again, this time with less interest in puzzles and more interest in the movie. The game’s short runtime (only a few hours) and the possibility of alternate endings (we’ll leave that to Reddit and YouTube to unpack) suggest the same thing.

For the second playthrough, I switched from Steam Deck to a big TV. I’m glad I did because while this game doesn’t necessarily look like a AAA game, it does feel like one. So play on the biggest screen with the best headphones or speakers you can find.

Somerville is a delicious, mouth-watering bite to close out a year that will be remembered for multi-course meals. I think we can leave it at that. But I want to retreat one last time to the pedigree of the game. Because it’s not just an entertaining video game, Somerville has an unusual amount of significance to the gaming industry – or baggage, depending on your angle.

A millennial father, mother, son and dog sleep on the couch in front of a glowing TV in Somerville.

Image: Jumpship via Polygoon

In 2010 the Danish studio Playdead came out Limbo, one of the first indie games to take advantage of internet-connected consoles and digital storefronts. A small team could reach a huge audience without appearing on the shelf at Walmart – and without all the associated overheads. Inside appeared six years later in the thick of the “indiepocalypse,” when those same online stores had become overflowing with dozens of new releases every week. Its predecessor guaranteed the attention of reviewers and its quality earned high marks, putting the dystopian yarn above its thousands of contemporaries. Now, six years later, we have reached a conclusion of sorts Somerville, a project that shows how indie games have become not-so-indie, that established talent has the money and the cachet to split up and do separate things. In addition, Jumpship has partnered with Microsoft to create Somerville available at launch on Game Pass, drawing a direct line backwards Limbos original appearance on Xbox Live Arcade. The upstarts have become the oldest.

Naturally, Inside developer Playdead still exists. In 2020, the studio announced a partnership with game publisher and storefront Epic Games. When that deal pays off, we may see the official conclusion to this historic indie game trilogy. Of Somerville in the world as an interim conclusion of sorts, it’s safe to expect that both the original plant and the cutting will be just fine, branching out in their own moody and beautiful ways.

I’ve kept one thing from you, and that’s the last act. Limbo, And, in particular Inside, understood that a memorable ending makes for a memorable game. Somerville retains this lesson, and for all its familiarity and narrative clarity, the game loosens its grip on the wheel until suddenly it hurtles off-road in…something you’ll have to experience for yourself.

Maybe then Somerville is the most welcoming of the three games, starting with the familiar and riding the slow, exponential line up to the bizarre. Smart choice. For all the craftsmanship it takes to make a clear, playable movie, nothing beats the otherworldly craziness of video games.

Somerville will be released on November 15 on Windows PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X via Game Pass. The game was reviewed on PC using a Jumpship pre-release download code. Vox Media has partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s Ethics Policy here.

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