Review: In Somerville, Technical Issues Completely Undercut the Spectacle

Red vs. Blue vs. Bugs

It’s not often that I give up on a game entirely like I have with Somerville. I’m not just talking about games I’d like to review, either. I’m stubborn. If I put more than an hour or so into a game, I like to see it through, no matter how much I’m not enjoying that time. Sometimes a good ending can — even if it doesn’t entirely turn my opinion around — at least endear me to something. But I just can’t take any more of the frustrating technical issues found throughout Somerville at launch.

The debut title from developer Jumpship looks and plays a whole lot like Limbo and especially Inside. Which makes sense given that the studio was founded in part by a former producer of Playdead, maker of those very games. You could reductively call Somerville a sidescrolling puzzle platformer in the vein of thoat aforementioned duo. You play a nameless bearded man. A father, to be exact. One caught in a strange and apocalyptic scenario forcing him on a dangerous journey across a countryside infested with (maybe) alien technology and creatures. Stop me if you’ve seen this sort of setup before in any other video game from the last decade.

The dauntless Dad quickly gets roped more directly into the sci-fi antics when a blue-suited space marine crashes through his living room and (accidentally?) imbues him with a magic glowing wrist. Then he sets out to find his family in the midst of some kind of high-tech war.

The exact details of this setup are unclear. Hence the parentheticals. Also like those Playdead games, there is no real dialogue in Somerville. Things happen and you sort of piece together their meaning through visual cues. Though the world has a much more obvious and even familiar internal logic than the Lynchian nightmare of something like Inside.

People watch TV. They drive cars. Some of them were at a concert when the world began to end. Imagine the “normal people caught in the crossfire of an alien invasion” terror of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds reboot mixed with a bit of Simon Stålenhag “weird technology draped over sleepy, dreary ruralism.” That’s the palette Somerville paints with and, to be perfectly clear, it does look amazing. Which only makes the game itself that much more disappointing. You can see a very exciting world of possibilities with this setting and these sights… right before they collapse into one stale, glitchy reality.

Somerville knows it’s pretty, too. It’s so enamored with this fact that sometimes it won’t actually let you see the damn puzzles you’re supposed to solve.

Upon exiting your destroyed farmhouse at the start of the game, the POV pulls back to reveal a massive landscape dotted with floating alien obelisks in the sky. Dad isn’t much bigger on the screen; he’s just a blip in the midground. The foreground, meanwhile, is choked with trees and haybales and things. It’s a breathtaking sight and there’s something to be said for a game that can pull off meaningful spectacle after decades of technically impressive AAA games should have made me jaded about visual panache.

Then the camera ducks behind those haybales and stumps as you run from right to left (which you do a lot in Somerville) and it’s easy to lose the player character entirely. More importantly, this is where the game started to lose track of what was happening. Right there at the start: during what I would describe as the first “real” puzzle outside of the tutorial.

I quickly came upon a fence in this infinite landscape blocked by alien stone. Besides walking and grabbing onto things, the main means of interacting with the world of Somerville is through Dad’s magic wrist. It lets him turn any source of light he can touch into a rock-manipulating magic wand. If he’s holding a flare, for example, you can toggle it to melt red-black space rock blocking your path into permeable blue-black space goop.

So, to get past the fence, I had to melt the rock. That much I could tell. But I walked up and down and all around that field for 30 minutes to no avail. The only object I could interact with was another haybale with a handle on it that refused to move no matter how I pushed or pulled.

Thinking I missed something, I walked away from the fence, back up the hill towards the ruin I had exited. The camera had other ideas. It got stuck behind the trees and things in the foreground and stayed in place as I looked (or tried to look) for more clues. I did eventually manage to shake it loose by very slowly walking towards the foreground, which snapped the camera back in place, but this happened three or four more times as I explored.

That’s when I remembered that Dad wasn’t totally alone. He had a dog. During the tutorial, the furry friend would sometimes run around and bark at important objects. Maybe it could indicate the solution to my current problem.

Despite the painfully pulled-back perspective, I did eventually find the dog. It was half-stuck inside a wall, endlessly running backwards and flickering slightly. No help there…

Finally, I tried the last thing I could think to do: I reloaded the checkpoint. And this is where things got really weird. Reloading spawned me right in front of the blocked fence. At which point the alien rocks just… disappeared. By themselves. Instantly. Even now I don’t know how the hell to solve that puzzle because it solved itself automatically after I gave up to try again.

My best guess is that I had done what I needed to somewhere along the line and gotten the next checkpoint ahead of where I actually was, but the game hadn’t played the animation to open the path. I doubt I’ll ever be sure, though, because this sort of thing happened two more times at different spots in the nearly four-and-a-half hours it took me to give up on Somerville. I would try something over and over again, not sure if I was right and the game was just bugged, or if I was completely barking up the wrong tree, then I’d reload. Sure enough, the game would spawn me five feet ahead of where I was standing previously, puzzle already solved behind me.

This happens even when there’s a very obvious glitch at play, too. Such as when I climbed around some ledges inside a cave. I reached the end of the path I was supposed to traverse and dropped down onto a platform — where there was a very obvious ladder just begging to be climbed. Except, whenever I jumped down onto the platform, Dad would stop and hover three inches above where I was supposed to go, stuck in an endless falling animation, kicking his legs impotently for all eternity. I reloaded that one three more times before the checkpoint finally took. Sure enough, Somerville spawned me on top of the ladder I was supposed to reach. Saved me a climb, I guess.

And yes, I started counting these glitches and restarts and instances of warping around. It got to the point that, as I took my notes on Somerville, I began to worry this review would be nothing more than a list of bugs and grievances. Glitches and hiccups can of course be patched out. There are apparently plans to release another update for the game shortly, which is good news. So, I don’t just want to talk about the poor performance (the game chugs in spots even on a moderately beefy PC and my Steam Deck) and broken AI pathing.

However, this is a tight and very linear game. It’s supposed to be about 4-6 hours long, according to PR, but who knows how much my playtime was inflated by muddling through broken puzzles and repeatedly reloading. And Somerville prides itself on presentation — a theatrical sort of experience that you should be able to get lost in and enjoy in a sitting or two. It’s not an open-world or online game where wonky loot drops can be fixed to give people the gun they want. First impressions are very important here. Even little immersion-breaking moments, of which there are also plenty, stand out so much more when the whole game is supposed to be a single, smooth ride with nowhere to go and nothing to do but what the game expects of you. And the issues on display in Somerville are so much worse than just little moments of lost immersion at the moment.

Still, let’s really ignore that for a second. Let’s get away from the airing of grievances. Even if everything was working perfectly, I’m not sure the game would be fantastic.

Is Somerville pretty and atmospheric? Yes, absolutely. But it’s also strangely inexpressive. The game teases you into thinking there will be little moments where Dad can articulate his state of mind or touch the world. You’re able to hug your dog exactly once during the tutorial, for example, and there’s a brief detour where you can sit on a bench and watch the world die while resting up for the next leg of your journey.

But not only are those moments oddly few and far between, Somerville is littered with absolute layup opportunities for emotional reaction or interaction that simply go ignored. Both you as a player and Dad as a character are simply left inert: utilitarian tools for puzzle solving and video game-ing and not much else.

You can sit on that bench, sure, but are unable to pet the dog again. Even as it whimpers and cries at your feet. Later, there are moments when you need to move through obstacles that your little buddy must find another way around, but your character never slows down or looks back or even acknowledges the animal’s presence in these scenes, despite it being the closest thing to a constant companion you have during much of the game.

Even other human characters are similarly treated as stage dressing. You can’t stop to try and help a drunk man at an abandoned concert escape the invasion. You can’t even try. He’s just another little piece of environmental storytelling. Scenery. Later, another superhuman in an Iron Man suit like the one that blasted through your roof comes to your aid. This gets no reaction from Dad. You can be acted upon in these scenes, in another pretty and highly scripted sequence of events, but your protagonist doesn’t even flinch or emote. He’s just there to be carried into the next high-speed action sequence.

It just feels weird. Especially for a game that seems to be about how terrifying it would be for a normal person to live in a world torn apart by something otherworldly. You don’t feel like a normal person; you feel like a video game character. Especially as you unlock new powers and solve increasingly interesting puzzles. Those might at least add more simple fun, but as we’ve established, they fall apart so often that you can’t tell if you’re doing something wrong or if the game is.

That’s what eventually made me throw in the towel. I simply reached one level too many where the solution seemed obvious, but I spent 30-45 minutes walking back and forth trying to move something that seemed to repeatedly roll inside a wall instead of going where I needed it. Trial and error is one thing, but when you can’t tell the difference between your errors and the game’s anymore, that’s really demoralizing.

So, yes. I gave up on Somerville. For now at least. I’m not happy about it, either. I wish I had gotten to see more of the game’s exciting art and cool setpieces. But that spectacle wasn’t worth the frustrating and sometimes hollow feeling I got from the game in between. I’m sure there’s a very interesting game underneath it all that people will be able to more easily uncover after a few patches. For now, though, I simply can’t recommend it in its launch state.