More safety doesn’t mean fewer scares.
While Frictional Games’ narrative-driven horror title SOMA was originally released for PC and PlayStation 4 back in 2015, a more recent release on Xbox One last December came with a brand new mode of play: Safe Mode. According to Frictional, Safe Mode is designed to give players a slightly less intense experience since it turns the game’s various monsters from highly aggressive threats into more passive obstacles. Having now played through SOMA’s Safe Mode myself, I can honestly say the new mode strikes an excellent balance between retaining SOMA’s original creepy atmosphere and making the overall experience more casual-friendly.
For those who don’t know, Frictional was inspired to create and implement Safe Mode after it discovered that one of the most popular fan-created mods for SOMA’s PC version actually straight up removed all of the game’s monsters. While Safe Mode doesn’t quite do that, it does make the monsters more passive, allowing the player to more easily skirt their way around them as they navigate SOMA’s dark and decrepit environments. To clarify, the monsters aren’t *completely* passive – they are still drawn to light and loud noises and they will attack if provoked too much – but they won’t relentlessly hunt down the player, which means they can easily be avoided by running away and keeping a safe distance.
It should also be noted that the presence of more passive monsters in no way hampers SOMA’s scare factor. The game still has a strong blend of moody atmosphere, occasional jump scares (I prefer when jump scares are kept to a minimum), and a chilling narrative which forces the player to question the limits of their own humanity as they seek to escape the game’s underwater network of abandoned science facilities. I’ll admit I would have preferred not having to deal with monsters at all because my fascination with the horror genre is juxtaposed by my being a total scaredy cat, but I understand that Frictional’s original vision for SOMA called for the presence of monsters, and Safe Mode definitely serves as a worthy compromise.
Sadly, while I found the concept of Safe Mode to be more than palatable, SOMA’s overall performance on Xbox One wasn’t exactly flawless. It could be because I was playing on an original Xbox One and not a newer Xbox One S or Xbox One X, and I also had the game installed on an external hard drive so that might have been a part of the problem as well, but I frequently encountered brief screen freezes and choppy framerates, especially whenever the game had to load a new area. There were also a few occasions where the game would soft-lock and just shut down, which wasn’t too much of a pain thanks to SOMA’s generous auto-save feature. But the initial loading times for when you first boot into the game could be agonizingly long – I’m talking 5-6 minutes on average – which made having to recover from a soft-lock all the more frustrating.
Still, despite the inherent technical issues, I found SOMA’s Safe Mode to be one of the best ways to experience a first-person narrative horror game. Having played similar games in the past such as Frictional’s own Amnesia: The Dark Descent and its sequel, The Chinese Room’s Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I wish they too had come with their own Safe Mode options, if only to better allow me to appreciate each game’s atmosphere without having to blunder my way through monster encounters in a blind panic. If the prospect of having to face down monsters you can’t kill has turned you off to games like SOMA in the past, the Safe Mode option just might be the sort of compromise you’re looking for.