Somerville has been high on my anticipated indie game list since it was announced back in 2017. We had scantly seen it in the years since, with the developers occasionally teasing us with new trailers or screenshots.
But given that Somerville was a project developed by a co-founder of Playdead, the indie studio responsible for Limbo and Inside, it was naturally going to attract some attention.
After leaving Playdead in 2016, producer Dino Patti formed Jumpship with Somerville director Chris Olsen. Following eight years of work, the team have finally launched the game. I’ve been eager to dive into it, and though some technical hiccups hold it back a bit, it mostly lived up to my expectations.
It came from outer space
Somerville revolves around a father looking for his family following an alien invasion of Earth. His journey is the entire focal point of the game, and without any dialogue or text, Somerville relies mostly on character movements and sound to communicate its story.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Playdead’s work. It’s a more cinematic and grand work, and a lot of care went into crafting a minimalist experience. Thankfully, as long as you’re paying attention, you should be able to follow along with the narrative just fine even without dialogue.
Instead, Somerville is a game centered around emotions and depictions. Why are the aliens here? What do they want? Somerville won’t answer that, so if you absolutely need explanations, look elsewhere. It’s a game that depicts a simple story effectively enough through wordless motions.
Changing the game in Somerville
Through the game’s story, your nameless player character will gain powers that allow him to shape the world. One lets him remove alien structures and turn it into a fluid-like substance; the other lets him harden that fluid into solid matter.
The mechanics are extremely simple, almost to a fault. It’s very easy to understand what the nature of your powers are, which is a plus. Yet I never felt that Somerville adequately used these systems to its advantage. Some sections use the “fluid-to-solid” mechanic in a clever way, and adapting these powers to other objects is a nice touch.
However, often, the task in front of you basically amounts to pressing a button to open the way. Nothing in Somerville is particularly brain-taxing, and some might find that appealing, but the game will certainly feel hollow for those looking for a good challenge.
Brand new world, brand new headaches
Exploring the world of Somerville reveals a bleak, hopeless new world. It also occasionally reveals some glitches and technical hiccups.
Every so often, I’d get stuck temporarily behind a piece of geometry, and it can be hard to determine what parts of the scenery are solid or not. This can be overcome most of the time, though I did on one occasion get into an area that I couldn’t escape from. But with the game’s generous checkpoints, reloading your progress isn’t an issue.
That can’t save you from graphical problems, however, as Somerville seems fairly unoptimized for modern systems. I counted numerous times where the screen or actors would flicker, and I’ve heard plenty of players complaining about inconsistent framerates.
Personally, I could overlook a lot of the game’s technical issues. I was mostly too absorbed into the game to mind all that much when a problem did happen. Still, it may be worth it to wait until more patches go live.
Somerville almost lives up to its lofty ambitions
Somerville is an ambitious little title that tries to tell an impactful story through a minimalist narrative. And it mostly succeeds, with simple gameplay and some truly effective moments. But it doesn’t quite live up to the spectacle it wants to achieve, and some technical problems don’t help much either. Still, any fan of minimalist sci-fi adventure games should feel right at home here.
News also broke on the game’s release day that Thunderful Games is acquiring Jumpship. So hopefully, the company’s next project will be bigger and better.
Somerville is developed and published by Jumpship. It is available now for Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC via Steam and Epic Games Store. It is also available via Xbox and PC Game Pass.