As I type out the words ‘Somerville review’, my eyes wander over to the pristinely sealed copy of God of War: Ragnarök sitting on my desk. This is partly because I’m itching to play it but also because the game I’m critiquing manages to explore the same anxieties of parenthood in little over 3 hours that God of War achieves in 20. That’s not a slight on God of War (which happens to be one of my favourite games) but a massive compliment for Somerville and its developers.
A far cry from the mythological Norse realm of Midgard, Somerville pits you as an ordinary, unnamed guy living with his wife and toddler in a recognisable yet abstract version of rural England. One evening, in-between tidying the kitchen and feeding the dog, the sky lights up as an alien invasion (on a War of the Worlds scale) begins its devastating assault. After splitting up from your family in the confusion, you set out across the post-apocalyptic landscape in the hope of reunite with them.
In the opening seconds of the game, a long tracking shot follows Dad (none of the characters have names so we’ll call him Dad) as he drives down a winding motorway towards his house. It’s an unashamedly cinematic sequence and, coupled with the blocky, stylised art-work feels like the intro to The Shining by way of Kentucky Route Zero. And much like the latter, Somerville is an expert at teasing out the magic in the mundane; whether that’s falling asleep on the sofa while watching TV or tidying the house, you feel the closeness your family shares without a word of dialogue ever being uttered.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t last for very long. After a spaceship comes hurtling through the basement ceiling, you pass out, waking up an indeterminate amount of time later to discover your wife and child are missing. However, just before you lose them, a being in a mechanical suit emerges from the spaceship and bestows an otherworldly energy on you before promptly dying. As you try to leave the basement in search of your family, you realise that the only exit is blocked by a strange, alien substance. To better survey the scene, you move over to a lamp still flickering in the corner of the room. In one of the game’s only prompts, you’re told to press the left trigger button which shoots a bright beam of energy from your hand, filling the path of the light and dissolving the substance blocking the stairway.
Into the light
Cleaning up alien gunk forms the basis of Somerville’s gameplay loop, which mainly consists of ingenious little environmental puzzles. While starting off gently, some of the latter puzzles are a real headscratcher, even more so given the lack of any hint system. But this just makes solving them all the more rewarding.
For example, I find myself weaving through an abandoned music festival in a field in an attempt to cross to the next village. I come to a ladder leading to the roof of a music tent but the alien goo is blocking my way. I spot a pretty string of fairy lights tied to a tent pole nearby, so I pull the pole out of the ground to shine the light (and my power) at the substance, but it’s too heavy to climb the ladder with. After trapesing around the stage for some time, I inadvertently start wrapping the string of lights around two nearby trees, which makes the line go taught and climb higher up the tree trunk until the lights reach the height of the ladder and I unleash my power, obliterating the goo.
These are simple puzzles but ingeniously put together in a way that encourages you to take the time to absorb your surroundings. Clearing up the alien material is very satisfying, too; the strange, fluid geometry is mesmerising and the strong vibrations of the trigger buttons as you use your abilities feels impressively powerful.
Unfortunately, movement feels less impressive in Somerville. The controls are clunky, and as most scenes are from a wide angle, your character is quite small. This makes it hard to discern which path to take or how to interact with objects, causing you to flail around and smack into walls. It’s a minor blot on an otherwise spotless record but it will make some of the later chase sequences that bit tougher.
Speaking of which, just when you think you’ve got this game all figured out, it turns everything on its head, with a second half full of incredibly well choreographed set-pieces that make you feel like you’re in a sci-fi action movie. At one point, an alien chases me into a bookshop, and, as I reach the top floor, I realise there’s no way out. As the creature bounds up the stairs, I spot a trolley of books resting against a wall. I grab hold and run straight towards the window in front of me, jumping out of the second floor and onto the roof of a van just as the glass smashes.
Somerville isn’t just some schlocky action adventure, though. There are quiet moments, too, full of beauty and wonder that fill me with a twisted patriotic pride: from the instantly recognisable yellow public footpath sign, to the styles in field hedgerows providing passage to the next. In one moment, I reach the top of a large hill to reveal a stunning vista sprawling beneath me. I sit down on the wooden bench to take it all in. It’s breath-taking, save for the overflowing dog shit bin planted right next to it, buzzing with numerous flies. Yes, there may be giant alien monoliths raining down from the sky, but this is the Britain I know.
Green unpleasant land
Somerville’s artwork is exquisite. Perhaps some of the best I’ve ever seen. In each scene, it feels as though the lighting has been dimmed right down so that everything sits in permanent dusk, with the occasional glow from a streetlamp or the glimmer of a fridge door light. In contrast, the alien architecture asserts itself in bold neon purples and pinks, casting shadows against the monolithic structures that hang from the sky in obsidian black. When walking through the woods, thick tree trunks scroll in parallax across the foreground, obscuring your view momentarily and raising your heart rate for just as long.
Somerville’s impression of the English countryside feels like a perfect setting, not least because the picturesque landscape juxtaposes so well with a world-ending alien invasion. But there’s also something quietly sinister about the English landscape itself: a sense of parochialism that simmers away beneath the dusk. Perhaps this is Britain’s answer to David Lynch’s obsession with the dark underbelly of small-town America?
Somerville Review: Final thoughts
Somerville is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. Whether the events that unfold are real or from the imagination of an anxious father, they speak to the primal fear of losing your child and the instinct to protect them from the world. Every scene is crafted with exquisite detail, both in terms of artwork and level design. Occasionally, the clunky controls get frustrating, but movement generally improves as you adapt to it. Despite a few minor niggles, then, Somerville is truly out of this world.