A couple of years ago Dino Patti, ex-CEO and co-founder of Playdead, the studio behind the puzzle platformers Limbo (2010) and Inside (2016), formed a new independent studio called Jumpship alongside Chris Olsey. From the first reveal of their new project, Somerville, it was clear that this was going to continue the formula that they had essentially pioneered at Playdead, but now without some of the key staff that had worked on those previous titles. Which begs the question of whether or not Somerville would be able to compete at the same level as Limbo (2010) and Inside (2016) did. I believe it can.
Somerville starts out with you and your family asleep in front of the TV, when suddenly alien obelisks start dropping from the sky, ravaging the previously undisturbed landscape. During this attack you lose your consciousness, and by the time you wake up your family is gone. But it’s not just your family, everyone seems to be gone by now. With no concept of how long you’ve been unconscious, you start your journey to find your family.
Somerville does a fantastic job of making you feel the same isolation your character must feel through the environments. Let’s get the obvious out of the way, Somerville is art directed to perfection, which of course it is, have you seen Limbo (2010) and Inside (2016)? Environments can both feel vast and endless, or small and claustrophobic depending on what is required, and in either case, it’s just stunning to look at.
But beyond that, the environments they’ve chosen to tell this story in are simply perfect to illustrate the emptiness of the world that followed the catastrophe. Seeing a giant concert arena with tents all around it, or a highway covered with cars, places we’re so used to seeing buzzing with life, completely empty, just does something to you.
But it’s not just the world around you that has changed, you’ve changed too. Your arms seem to have merged with some kind of alien technology, allowing you to supercharge nearby light sources. This allows you to interact with this weird alien substance that’s all over the planet now in various ways. The majority of the puzzles in Somerville come down to you manipulating the light sources around you in an attempt to create a way forward.
The designs of the puzzles are fantastic, with the majority of them managing to be a nice balance of not too obvious so that you do have to think a little, and not too cryptic so that you’ll figure out the solution without sitting there for hours wracking your brain. There are a couple of moments where you’ll be a bit lost in regards to what you’re supposed to do, but those are few and far between.
But to get back to the story for a second, Somerville depicts a large-scale conflict and is much bigger in scope than both Limbo (2010) and Inside (2016) were. However, within that, it manages to find a rather intimate story about a man trying to find his family, and it manages to balance both the big and the small of it all quite well.
Somerville also has a much more straightforward story than either Limbo (2010) or Inside (2016) had, delivering certain important story beats to you in a very clear manner. But it still sticks with the no-dialogue storytelling where the environments do most of the heavy lifting, and while it’s less abstract than those previous titles, it still leaves you to think at the end about what it all means.
Overall, the story in Somerville feels more ambitious than anything Dino Patti has worked on before, but it’s not just the story. Where Limbo (2010) was a 2D game, and Inside (2016) was a 2D game that played with its beautiful backgrounds to create the feeling of a 3rd dimension, Somerville actually is 3D now. The spaces you are allowed to explore are still rather limited, and it’s by no means an open world game now, but is a noticeable change in the formula that has an impact on how set pieces are designed.
Lastly, it would be a crime to talk about Somerville without mentioning the sound design. It is absolutely outstanding. The sound does so much heavy lifting to make the environments feel real and alive (although, of course, not too alive given the setting). Whether it’s the sound of rain crashing onto the window, or the endless echo and dropping of water drops in a cave, each and every space has such a palpable sense of atmosphere thanks to the sound. Then there are the aliens, which sound well… truly alien. It reminded me of Annihilation (2018), which, in my humble opinion, is one of the best representations of aliens ever put to screen.
Somerville also made the smart decision of refraining from using score for most of the game to elevate the usage of sound and the atmosphere even further. But the few times it does decide to use music, it hits.
At the end of the day though, I have to admit, that despite all of the positives, Somerville doesn’t quite reach the same heights that Inside (2016) did, but let’s be real here, very few games do. Once you get that expectation out of the equation, though, I believe you’ll find another fantastic puzzle platformer, that’s absolutely worth experiencing.
Nairon played Somerville on PC with his own copy. Somerville is also available on Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X.