I have a rule for games: once I’m sold on the concept or idea I put it in my Review Queue and then wait for it to be released. After that point I go on the lowest information diet I can with it, avoiding any talk about the developers, the community or anything else that might impact my impression of the game by itself. Of course this isn’t perfect, I often get a few bits of info here and there via the algorithms we’re all the target of these days, but for the most part it means I can go into a game blind to anything that might tar my experience before I get my teeth into it. I also tend to avoid reviews after I’ve finished the game, not wanting to have my opinion pulled one way or another by someone else’s thoughts on the game. So, hopefully, after all this I can give you my pure impression of the game and then I can go and see what others thought.
I missed that last step with Somerville and, now I’m rather confused with how I feel about the game.
You’re a young father, making his way through life with your family in the sleepy rural town of Somerville. As you doze off in front of the television one night, flanked on either side by your loving wife and babbling child, you’re suddenly sent bolt awake again as a battle begins to wage overhead. Giant alien obelisks descend from the sky and are met by seemingly alien augmented fighter planes, the battle seemingly erupting a moment’s notice. You attempt to flee with your family but your car is destroyed by an obelisk, forcing you to retreat to your basement. After hiding there for a while your house is torn to shreds by a crashed fighter plane, the pilot in a strange flowing blue suit dangling from the ceiling. Reaching out to him and grabbing his hand you’re blasted by a flash of blue light and rendered unconscious, beginning your crazed journey in the battle between man and the aliens.
Now if you, like me, thought that the developers of this game (Jumpship) were cut from the same cloth as those who developed Limbo and Inside then the visuals would be no surprise to you. That same atmospheric style is absolutely present here, the same use of muted colours and dramatic lighting effects all seamlessly blended together with cinematic camera work. The models are relatively low poly, but where most indie games would also go low texture here Somerville is instead properly textured, putting everything firmly on the more stylized side of the uncanny valley. This kind of craftsmanship should be expected though right, given the pedigree of the developers working on it?
Well…there’s the problem.
Jumpship was built by Dino Patti, former co-founder and executive producer of Playdead (and, apparently, someone who was not part of the creative team). Looking at the leads of the creative team behind it, not a single one of them is from Playdead. So this resemblance is purely manufactured to leverage the hype that this is a new studio built by former Playdead people, even though in reality there is no creative blood shared between these teams. This isn’t even to mention the crazy messy breakup that the co-founders of Playdead had which led to the creation of Jumpship which, when you look into it, really has no heroes on either side. For me this puts me in a conundrum as I had previously thought this was made by former Playdead devs looking to branch out. It’s not that at all and instead, it’s something that’s been built specifically to mimic those experiences and leverage off that goodwill which people like me would’ve banked with those devs.
Which honestly explains that whilst the game nails the visuals and atmospherics of a Playdead game it’s lacking in a couple other areas that elevated those Playdead titles to must-play classics. For starters the game’s mechanics, which are mostly just simplistic puzzles and timed encounters, are always a little bit finicky in their implementations. This lack of precision makes most of the puzzles just slightly irritating, removing that small dopamine hit and replacing it with just a sense of relief. Stability also isn’t great, the game locking and crashing maybe once every hour or so. Hit boxes on things are also a little off, objects sometimes colliding with (and killing) you when it doesn’t look like they were that close at all.
Which is honestly something you’d expect from a first time dev house right? They had a focus, the visuals and the general atmosphere, which is where a good chunk of the resources went. Gameplay, playtesting and in-depth mechanics were a second and so not as much time was given to them. Fundamentally I could appreciate this however it’s clear that this was done in order to capitalise on the Playdead goodwill which just doesn’t sit terribly well with me. To be sure Playdead has had its share of copycats over the years, but most at least shifted their view away from direction emulation in order to distinguish themselves from the IP that inspired them.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The narrative also fails to hit its mark, feeling rather slow paced even for the game’s short length. I had thought that there was some cool potential interactions between you and the various little orb things, given you could make pulses like they do, but as it turns out you can’t. Indeed the endings, which ostensibly were driven by your level of understanding of the alien language, actually had nothing at all to do with pulses those little guys put out. Indeed I found out about all endings but 2 by myself, one of them not needing the language at all (just sitting on that couch). Honestly it felt super hollow throughout and the story beats just never really hit the mark that they were supposed to.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
So after saying all this what is there to be said about Somerville as a game. In some aspects it really shines, being able to capture that dark, cinematic aesthetic that the Playdead games are known for. But on the other hand it’s a testament to a newly built game dev studio, one that’s still very much finding its feet and will likely do better the second time around. To be honest I was actually a bit more enthused about the game until I dug into its past, which has left me with mixed feelings on the whole thing. Suffice to say I think there is something to like here, especially for fans of the genre, but it’s mostly only skin deep at this point so caveat empor.
Somerville is available on PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S right now for $36.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3.3 hours playtime and 54% of the achievements unlocked.