Somerville Review: The minimalist British horror is the perfect game for winter | games

IIt’s Sunday – or at least it feels like it. You wake up with a start and realize you fell asleep in front of the TV. The dog barks impatiently for his dinner. You reluctantly leave your wife’s warm embrace, put your son to bed, and drag your canine buddy out of the basement. Here’s how developer Jumpship’s debut begins: not with a bang, but with a yawn. It’s an endearingly intimate glimpse into country life that, as one might expect, doesn’t last.

Once you’ve taken care of your pooch’s mealtime, an explosion rocks your rural abode. As you rush outside to survey the damage, you’ll see glowing obelisks tearing up the sky and destroying farmland with their lasers. It’s all extreme HG Wells, and after a strange glowing life-form knocks you unconscious, you’re presumed dead, setting the stage for a tense, lonely journey.

Somerville is atmospheric, unabashedly British sci-fi. If movies and games so often let us see the apocalypse through American eyes, there’s something oddly reassuring about how close that horror is to our home. From sprinting past haystacks and across fields ripped straight out of a National Trust guidebook to clambering over dusty Fiat 500s on a deserted trunk road, this is English Armageddon. The regular reappearance of your trusty little terrier is a welcome sight amidst the increasingly desolate, death-strewn vision of the home you once knew.

In true video game fashion, the aforementioned alien encounter has you circulating with otherworldly electromagnetic abilities, useful for puzzle solving. With a pull of the left trigger, your bandaged arm becomes a Thanos-like glaive that emits a burst of environmentally manipulating electricity that can cripple lightbulbs, fuse boxes, batteries, and other working wiring you come across.

Somerville tells his entire four-hour story without saying a single word. Similar to co-creator Dino Patti’s previous games, Limbo and Inside, Somerville communicates through expressive animations, smooth interactions, and simple controls. From evading four-legged cuboids while crouching and weaving through an eerily deserted music festival, to hardening a flow of plasma to seal off a flooded cave, its simple mechanics are put to effective use. But I spent way too much time weaving around each new vignette and wrestling with the camera while Country Dad fumbled awkwardly near the one thing I wanted him to interact with. He walks excruciatingly slow, and fiddly movements are always an immersion breaker.

Similar to Breath of the Wild, music and subwoofer-disturbing sound effects are used sparingly. For long stretches of your perilous journey, your only audio accompaniments are the gentle patter of rain and the impatient snort of your furry companion. If you’re about to have a close encounter of the murderous kind, the sound makes you very aware of that. That sense of foreboding makes Somerville a decidedly wintry game. As the days get shorter and the outside world less welcoming, this is an adventure to be enjoyed on a rainy evening, ideally in a dimly lit room.

Somerville is the only game I’ve ever had to hide from aliens in a filthy festival portaloo. But his last-ditch attempt at a galactic sci-fi ending ends with a disappointing bang. While its headscratcher finale will make you wish its non-verbal narration was a little more verbal, Somerville remains a masterclass in minimal storytelling; a series of memorable, haunting vignettes.

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