The atmospheric cinematic platformer with striking visuals and dialogue-free presentation has seen a number of notable releases over the years, from Playdead’s Limbo
to the Little Nightmares
series from Tarsier Studios. Somerville certainly falls into this camp, and as the debut game from indie studio Jumpship, it comes from a team that includes talent that worked on Inside. With its similarly minimal yet beautiful art direction, you wouldn’t be remiss thinking Somerville was the next game from Playdead.
Stylistically, it’s a good anchor point to have because Somerville goes to great lengths to break free from some of the 2D constraints of a game like Limbo. At least in terms of cinematic language. This is not to say that the ability to move back and forth in addition to left to right in environments is an evolution for this style of game, but having a fully 3D presentation allows the cinematography to create stunning setpieces. The camera is fixed, as expected, but feels untethered and free in a way that adds to the atmosphere and dramatic setting by moving in cinematic ways we haven’t seen in a game like this. And it can be breathtaking.
Somerville follows a family, with players taking control of a father in a rural setting dealing with the aftermath of what appears to be a full-scale alien invasion. There are shades of Close Encounters in the opening sequence, where soft lighting and the quiet of an evening in a rural home spiral out of control when otherworldly events begin. Without any dialogue, the emotional connection between the family you see is told through body language and a clear sense of urgency and desperation.
With its similarly minimal yet beautiful art direction, you wouldn’t be remiss thinking Somerville was the next game from Playdead.
There’s an on-the-run approach to a lot of the early parts of the experience, where you and the family dog are navigating through campsites and other post-apocalyptic locales in search of your family. It’s a clear and well-executed emotional setup to latch onto, though the addition of ambiguity and the strangeness of alien structures and supernatural powers add a definite dose of otherworldly. These powers, naturally, play into most of the puzzle-solving and traversal.
Somerville eases you into its slow and measured pace and 3D movement and interaction by putting you in charge of a toddler as mum and dad are sleeping in front of the TV. The janky movement and inconsistent animation fit in nicely with the sporadic and ragdoll-like behaviour of real-world toddlers, but once this extends to when you embark on the journey to reconnect as a parent; issues begin to arise. Character animation and movement are floaty, and imprecise, and feel like a layer sitting on top of the otherwise beautiful imagery. There’s weight to be found when pushing and pulling objects, but there’s a jarring transition similar to that of a scripted sequence being triggered.
This wouldn’t be a huge problem, especially for an indie release created by a small team, if it didn’t impact the puzzles and traversal challenges. Unfortunately, it does. A lot of the time it’s not made clear exactly what you can interact with, and often you need to be positioned in such a pixel-perfect way just to be able to do a thing with a thing. One sequence required calling an underground elevator, stepping in, and then pressing a button to reach the surface. Being fairly sure there was a button to press, but not entirely, and then not having the thing happen because the main character was not standing and facing the exact spot led to several minutes of backtracking and inspecting environments to see if something was missed. It wasn’t.
Somerville isn’t a difficult game, puzzles are often centered around making use of alien powers that progress and develop alongside the story and are mostly well-designed. Execution is the problem, which comes down to the floaty movement and interactivity being all over the place. It impacts eureka moments to the point where you begin to second guess actual for reals solutions. You might not encounter the same issue with the elevator example above, but that was simply one of many experienced while playing Somerville.
Somerville isn’t a difficult game, puzzles are often centered around making use of alien powers that progress and develop alongside the story and are mostly well-designed. Execution is the problem, which comes down to the floaty movement and interactivity being all over the place.
Ultimately it's the setting, art direction, and non-verbal cinematic storytelling where Somerville excels. But even here there are long lulls and a few sections that begin to feel bland. Like when you’re in a cave system trying to avoid attention in a way that feels like a homage to Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee. And outside of the emotional notes touched upon when it comes to trying to reach your family in an oppressive situation, the ending and final act are too obtuse and abstract to make any sort of lasting impact. Somerville is a visually impressive, relatively short cinematic adventure held back by its ambition.