Heavy Rain was pivotal for cinematic gaming, and over the years, they’ve got better, such as 12 Minutes or the superb Conway: Disappearance At Dahlia View. Somerville, the debut from Jumpship (just acquired by publisher Thunderful) is one such title that will resonate with film fans for its… mise-en-scene. How pompous of me.
A new studio co-founded by PlayDead’s Dino Patti, the comparisons to Inside are evident. It’s the same 2D side-scrolling with some gorgeous 3D scenarios, glorious ambiguity, and non-verbal storytelling that make this a universal experience. I sang the praises of Forgotten Fields for the storytelling and filmmaking techniques – notably the angles. Well, Film Studies students will be in their elements at the range of long shots, establishing shots, and whatnot on display here.
There wasn’t much to go by with the press for Somerville other than an insinuated catastrophe. No doubt the internet is chock full of spoilers about the game with other reviews from outlets, as well as gamers (it’s not just on Steam, but Game Pass, too). I’ll aim to keep it relatively vague and give an overview without ruining it. And no, I won’t allude to the multiple endings either. That’s for you to experience.
The story begins with some lovely shots of nighttime country driving. It doesn’t sound exciting, but it looked good and was a nice introduction. The occupants get out of their car, revealing a couple, their child, and a dog. Falling asleep on the sofa together to the sounds of TV static, the toddler wakes up, and you take control of the little tyke.
Up until now, Somerville was looking really nice and exhibited a great ambience. Now, playing as this pseudo ventriloquist dummy of a child was spoiling it. The animation was dodge; they’d stumble into household objects and float on and off the coffee table while not waking their folks or the dog up. There are only a few pointers to press the A button to interact (no keyboard or mouse options!?). It looks like an accident is about to happen, and then the ‘event’ kicks in.
An explosion can be heard then objects fall out of the sky. It’s an invasion. In an attempt to escape to… wherever is away from here, the father encounters one of the invaders and is knocked out. Upon awakening, only the dog remains, but now he’s armed with some ability to manipulate matter with light, causing solid objects to almost melt into vector-like goo. From here, it’s time to leave the house and assumedly link up with his missing family, dog in tow, and some ‘assistants’.
Somerville shares a lot of similarities with Inside. The side-scrolling across some multi-layered landscapes does it, and they’re a feast for the eyeballs. Early puzzles will include using your new powers to transform obstacles into new paths, but before long, it’s clear there are pursuers on your case. Some subtle, some gargantuan, and plenty of light-dodging. Those similar mechanics exist where you’re using stealth to sneak past, and besides the power to manipulate light, our hero is an everyday person without any other abilities. Nate Drake, he ain’t.
Death can be frequent and sudden, but the screen will fade and promptly return you to the scene to rectify it. It’s not discouraging, but for me, there’s a lot of clumsiness with object interaction. Sometimes you might know what you’re expected to do, but it’s the how that will be the problem. As with the opening scene with the toddler, you can sometimes merge with the environments, ascending invisible steps and circling small spaces until you can activate whatever it is you need to activate.
Visually, Somerville is splendid. The camera angles, such as the fixed positions, work in their favour, and besides the kid, the character modelling and animation were great too. As mentioned, I wish they didn’t clash too much with their environments. Like The Sixth Sense, colour is used to insinuate something of importance. Where the film uses red, the game uses a splash of yellow should you get stuck. It’s welcome, as there are odd occasions when you might not know what to fiddle with. Overall, it’s another great example of cinematic gaming and one worth a look at – especially if you have Game Pass.