Somerville begins with a glimpse into the lives of a young family and their dog. Everyone falls asleep on the couch watching TV, but a curious toddler gets himself into some inexplicable trouble to fit the family into his routine. Both the baby and the dog need to be fed and the kitchen needs to be cleaned, but something is amiss. In an explosive moment that really took me by surprise, the family is suddenly reunited with an alien invasion. An intense, often scary adventure begins from there. When Somerville hits its height and fires on all cylinders, it’s a moving spectacle, but unfortunately, technical hiccups and a few unexplainable puzzles keep it from being truly unbelievable.
Space Invaders may be remembered for letting a video game tell the story of an alien invasion, but Somerville represents something more intimate and human. The story primarily follows the father of this young family and, without any text or dialogue, examines what the world might look like and how you would survive if you changed everything about Earth instantly. You make your way across Somerville by following a linear path, solving environmental puzzles, and avoiding instant death at the hands of stronger enemies. Until the end, I didn’t know much about the invading army, but I didn’t care because I was only interested in surviving and staying connected to my family.
The game picks up after an inciting incident, the father must leave his home to find safety and take advantage of a strange new ability to help solve puzzles and progress. The game’s visual and audio design are spectacular and mysterious. Bizarre sound effects depict strange explosions in the distance and occasional lighting, synth orchestration and unheard piano pieces are expertly used to punctuate the scenes.
The simplistic designs of the characters and environments are striking. The world feels big despite being tangentially small, and there are plenty of moments where the camera pans to the horizon to frame particularly impressive vistas. The animation also feels natural and fluid… when it works.
Somerville’s biggest issue is ultimately a functional one that is sometimes easy to look past, but unfortunately, more often, impossible to ignore. Moments of emotional honesty are cut short when a character fades out of existence for a moment, or worse, the protagonist gets stuck in geometry while trying to solve a puzzle. I often had to restart checkpoints to make sure things executed properly. The bugs were especially frustrating in moments where I would think, “I bet this would look great… if only it had been animated correctly.”
Those issues extend to puzzle solving as well. Holding levers and switches is inconsistent and jumping over ledges – a frequent action – is sometimes more difficult than it should be. Even without those issues, though, there are some puzzles I didn’t enjoy solving. An early one, for example, involved moving an object to a specific location that I accidentally avoided.
However, when Somerville is doing the job right, and the story is being delivered right, it leads to some of the most memorable moments in the genre. Invaders are really scary. I tear up during at least one emotional moment, and the thrill goes places I never predicted and ends in a way that would make Steven Spielberg proud.
My first playthrough with Somerville was rough, but I restarted the game immediately after seeing the credits. There is no incentive to play again. No New Game Plus, or even added context from the second playthrough – I just wanted to re-experience the story and hoped giving it a second shot would lead to a more coherent experience. It worked better when I knew what I was doing, but I was disappointed that my first play felt like a dress rehearsal.
Somerville is held back by technical shortcomings, but is full of impressive moments worth experiencing with the lights down low and your headphones turned up high. My father’s excitement lingers in my mind when I reflect on what happened, and those memories eventually overshadow the technical shortcomings. I hope that time will provide improvements to bring the game where it should be, high in the sky with the ships of the invading forces.