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Somerville Review: Limbo with a sci-fi (narrative?) twist

And it's damn good!

Somerville has snuck up on me, but that might be the best way to play this, the latest — kinda — from developers formerly belonging to the studio responsible for the likes of Limbo and Inside.

That qualification up there? That’s because Somerville is the first title from Jumpship, a studio co-founded by Dino Patti, himself a co-founder of Limbo‘s Playdead. This new title isn’t exactly what you’d expect, however — it’s throughly mixed with a sci-fi, narrative twist.

While Playdead’s titles are all about atmosphere and some narrative thread to tie things together, Somerville absolutely leans on the latter. The player begins as a voyeur, watching a family of three (four, if you count the dog) that have dozed off on the couch. Things escalate quickly after that, with an alien invasion that rips the family away from one another.

While Limbo was about survival, and Inside was figuring out just what the hell was going on (with varying degrees of success, depending on who you ask), Somerville quickly attaches a strong motivation to find your family while doing both those other things. It also adds in a truly 3D playing field, with puzzles and traversal to match.

Waking up as the displaced father, you’ll find yourself in command of an alien artefact; the player is equally as unsure of what it does as the character is. It proves to be quite the useful tool as you strive to find your wife and toddler, interacting with alien remnants and debris and helping you to progress. With your dog in tow, you quickly run into alien-like beings that could be the canines of another planet, and glimpse what could be an alien ally off in the distance.

While Somerville is equally as silent as the works of Playdead, there’s a lot that’s being said without the need for actual conversations or background text. There’s a bit of simlish thrown in for good measure around the midpoint, but I’d argue it wasn’t needed.

Despite this larger emphasis on narrative, there’s still a very heavy reliance on puzzle solving in Somerville. You start off in the family’s home — bright and colourful, even in the darkness of night — before our protagonist quickly leaves his abode for a dark and dreary forest that you’d be forgiven for mistaking for Limbo.

What follows, perhaps sadly, is an overreliance on drab. There are a couple all-important colours to be found; yellow is an indication that you’ll be able to interact with whatever object sports the colour, while powers under your command (or soon to be) are denoted by blue, red and purple. The three latter colours — not that you’ll gain access to all instantly — are reliant upon sources of light to change the physical state of things; this is coupled with actual physics-based puzzles that involve a physical thing being moved to help you progress.

By opening things up to a 3D playing field, Somerville occasionally stumbles. In an initial forest sequence, I managed to clip past an obstacle to solve a puzzle in a way that I don’t believe was intended. In another instance very quickly afterward, I clipped into a tree and then solidified, needing to restart from a checkpoint to continue on. While Microsoft has confirmed that “there will be an update coming soon that will fix some of these issues… [including] some audio and other minor bugs,” those were not confirmed at the time of publication.

Bugs or not, be prepared to get a little frustrated in some sections while you do your best to figure out how to continue on. As you progress, there’s an ever increasing sense that the people who’ve made this game have a better grasp of powers than the player; while Jumpship ultimately does a tremendous job of detailing what the coloured powers do, it doesn’t really explain at times when you should logically use said abilities.

There’s a lot of trial and error that might end up being fun (if you’re lucky), but could equally end up with the playing bashing their head against a wall. In the harshest of readings, Somerville boils down to one those ideas that can’t sustain, but thankfully you’re invested enough that you’ll see it through to the end. At the end of my playtime, I’d only earned 150 gamerscore of a possible 1,000; I don’t know why Playdead thought this was acceptable and I’ve no idea why Jumpship still does the same.

In counterpoint, Somerville does for Inside for what Inside did for Limbo. While the means of gameplay has evolved into a 3D realm, it’s more an emphasis on an actual narrative that sets it apart. Somerville is ambitious and sometimes doesn’t hit the heights it aims for, but certainly retains points for trying. If you liked those (overly referenced) titles of past, you’ll absolutely enjoy this outing. If you’ve not played those put appreciate sci-fi in the vein of Observation, you’ll equally feel at home.

Somerville is available now on Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X. It’s also avaliable on both Xbox and PC Game Pass, so a considerable amount of gamers can essentially try before they truly commit. I reckon you’ll be sucked in within the first 15 minutes or so.

8 out of 10

Somerville was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox Series X, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.

Update: A clarification on Patti’s connection to Limbo and Inside was made at the request of Playdead.

“Somerville executive producer Dino Patti was not a creative contributor to Limbo or Inside,” Playdead wrote in an email to Stevivor.



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About the author

Steve Wright

Steve's the owner of this very site and an active games journalist for close to fifteen years. He's a Canadian-Australian gay gaming geek, ice hockey player and fan. Husband to Matt and cat dad to Wally and Quinn.