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Two years after it first debuted on PC and PS4, Frictional’s latest slice of terror finally arrives on Xbox One. Rather than the interdimensional gothic horror of Amnesia, however, Soma opts for a near-future science fiction setting, and looks to ask questions about what it means to be human.

You awake in a Toronto apartment in 2015, in the body of Simon Jarrett, a poor sod who’s recently suffered a traumatic accident. As a result, he’s off to have a brain scan as part of an experimental trial; a pair of scientists have come up with a way to model the brain, allowing them to test out different treatments in a virtual setting before applying a working therapy plan on a living patient. Simon travels to the lab, takes a seat to begin the scan, and a helmet is lowered over his face before his vision fades to white.

He wakes up a hundred years later.

Clearly things didn’t go to plan. Simon awakens to find himself in a dilapidated, decaying industrial area, seemingly devoid of life, with no explanation for this sudden shift. Exploring our surroundings, we discover Simon has somehow been transported to an undersea research complex in a post-apocalyptic earth; after a comet struck the surface, the members of the PATHOS-II facility became the last remnants of mankind, and set about a plan to preserve humanity. And yet, at least to begin with, we can’t seem to find any people here, just murderous robots that seem intent on stalking poor Simon through darkened corridors at the bottom of the sea. On top of that, there’s some strange growth infecting everything in the station and its surrounding environs, apparently reanimating and controlling organisms for its own ends. Soma‘s vision of our near-future is a reassuringly chunky, almost retro-futuristic one, which makes its setting, and by extension its fiction, broadly believable, and at this point you’d be forgiven for being reminded as much of Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation as anything from Frictional’s back catalogue.

Nothing good happened here.

While you’ll spend a fair amount of your time in SOMA creeping around creepy abandoned facilities by yourself, Simon isn’t alone during his journey through the thermal plants, factories and research labs that make up the PATHOS-II Initiative’s clutch of facilities. Fairly early on, you’ll meet Catherine Chun, a former member of the team that guides you toward your objectives and engages in frequent debates on the nature of the self. You see, while Soma can be a terrifyingly visceral experience at times, especially when being chased by the awful victims of the aforementioned infection, its true horror is more existential in nature. I really don’t want to spoil the story – which is interesting, thought-provoking, and genuinely gripping, and should definitely be experienced first-hand – but much of the thrust of Soma rests in exploring what makes us human, and where our sense of self – our very consciousness – resides. There are some genuinely chilling and unsettling moments in Soma that have nothing to do with creepy monsters or jump scares (though there’s plenty of those, too), and it’s all the more effective for its undersea setting, the pressure of the unfathomable depths pressing down on you and reminding you you’re almost alone in the world, often with nothing but your own thoughts for company.

Crucial to the horror experience is pacing, and Soma is excellent in this regard, too. You’re never in one place doing one thing for too long, and as soon as you start to think you might be getting a little too comfortable in any one location, you’ll be whisked off to another part of the North Atlantic shelf to do something else. Like Frictional’s other games, and increasingly common to the genre, you’ll spend a lot of your time simply exploring the environment and hiding from ungodly terrors (you’ve no means to defend yourself, of course), while also solving a decent amount of puzzles. These won’t tax your grey matter too hard, but you will at least need to engage your brain for a minute or two, and most are enjoyable.

You’ll also spend a significant amount of time out on the sea floor, often trudging between stations. At first, being surrounded by vast, fathomless nothing feels oppressive, with your vision and hearing severely curtailed by the deep, dark depths. This feeling never really goes away, but after a while you’ll start to appreciate the relative freedom, and there’s a sense of (again, relative) serenity to these sections, especially as you come to realise you’re rarely in any mortal danger when out in the water. Of course, there’s still that sense of foreboding, that crushing dread that the game has been instilling right from the start, when Simon awoke in his apartment in 2015 and you had a sense that things weren’t quite right, and it’s to the game’s credit that it manages to keep that tone throughout. It’s never less than unsettling, and the fact that Soma manages to offer an ending that can leave you both horrified and elated is quite something indeed.

See, now isn’t this much nicer?

There’s also dozens of documents to read and audio recordings to find that will flesh out the lives and experiences of the now-absent PATHOS-II team if you care to explore. Aiding that is a new gameplay experience called Safe Mode, which allows you to play through the game immune to its various monsters. Before playing, this sounded like an odd addition for a horror game, but having now experienced Soma – and again, I’d like to stress that its horror is more rooted in existential dread than monster closets – it makes perfect sense. This is a world you will want to explore, and sometimes you just can’t – if a monster’s patrolling an area, you will have to sneak past, or maybe even try running and see where that gets you. My natural inclination in narrative-heavy games is to explore every inch of the world, and I couldn’t quite do that in Soma. I’m seriously considering another playthrough to experience Safe Mode for myself.

It’s a world you should experience for yourself, too. If a mix of Amnesia, Alien Isolation and System Shock sounds like sweet, terrifying manna from heaven (hell?), well, why haven’t you played it already?

Luna
Back in March, Square Enix’s grand event to finally, finally announce a release date for the long-in-development Final Fantasy XV came with a number of surprises. The Japanese publisher appeared to be incredibly bullish about the upcoming RPG, and unveiled a catalogue of cross-media projects to compliment it. There was a five-part anime series to give us the background on the main characters and their relationships. There was the obligatory mobile game tie-in. And then there was Kingsglaive. Easily the most exciting part of the extended media offering, here was a beautiful CG movie in the vein of Final Fantasy VII‘s Advent Children, and it came completely out of nowhere.

Of course, the game’s release date has since slipped, even as all the marketing has remained on target. And that includes Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, now available to buy on a handful of digital platforms. What was once a mouth-watering starter to the main course of Final Fantasy XV must now span a two month gap until the long-awaited title is in our hands. But does it slake our thirst for Final Fantasy or leave us unsatisfied?

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV effectively acts as a visually-spectacular two-hour cutscene intro to the full game, setting the scene for Noctis and friends’ world-spanning road trip. It introduces us to the conflict between the magical kingdom of Lucis, empowered by an enormous crystal, and the military empire of Niflheim, which uses its magitek creations and enormous ‘demons’ to conquer and subjugate other nations. King Regis of Lucis assembles a group of elite warriors empowered by the crystal, dubbed the Kingsglaive, and though they are able to wield powerful magic, they are unable to turn the tide. After years of war, the empire sends its chancellor, Ardyn Izunia, to initiate peace talks to be held in Insomnia, the capital of Lucis. Of course, there is an ulterior motive, and as both sides scheme around the talks, each takes the opportunity to end the war in their favour.

Which begs the question: why would the Lucians agree to hold the talks in their capital city, inviting their enemies right into the heart of their land? Why not a neutral location? Because Kingsglaive doesn’t really make a lot of sense, that’s why. It’s entertaining enough in its big, flashy action setpieces, and there’s a ton of fan service in here for those looking (including monsters like the behemoth, summons, and even an appearance by a curious character from Final Fantasy VI), but the thrust of the story isn’t particularly engaging thanks to implausible decisions made by literally every character in play.

regisclarus

There’s a curious subplot about immigration threaded through much of Kingsglaive‘s narrative. As Niflheim marches through Lucis, conquering the outer reaches of its territory in the process, its citizens are driven toward the capital city of Insomnia, to take shelter beyond its magical wall. It’s a thread that’s never really developed or explored beyond a few jibes and uses of the word immigrant; even our protagonist Nyx, Kingsglaive member and so-called immigrant himself, is unable to give us any real insight into what life was like for him before he came to Insomnia. And then there’s the fact that these people are still Lucians, they’re just not from the nation’s capital, which makes the whole thing feel a little forced. Perhaps ‘refugee’ would have been a better word to use, and it may have even enabled Kingsglaive to say something interesting about people fleeing conflict.

Instead, it’s used as a basic plot device to provide justification to characters who don’t quite get the development they need, despite a relatively small core cast and a two hour runtime. These are pretty digital avatars that exist to look cool and do awesome things, rather than believable people with their own needs and desires, and as such it’s hard to develop much of an attachment to them. We’re told what these people are fighting for, but never shown, so we never really get a real feel for their motivations. And when we see a character die, we’re not sad for the loss of someone we had become interested in, but rather disappointed that we likely won’t see them in the game, where we might have learned more about them and actually come to care for them.

There’s also the issue of Luna. The female lead in both the game and the film, Lunafreya Nox Fleuret is the princess of the conquered kingdom of Tenebrae, and we’ve long been assured that she’ll be a strong character – necessarily so, to balance out the all-male core cast of the game. Yet she spends almost the entirety of the film being dragged around by men who either seek to use her or need to protect her. Telling the audience, repeatedly, that she’s not afraid to die if it means accomplishing her mission doesn’t really count as strength when she repeatedly throws herself into peril that she needs to be saved from. Here’s hoping there’s more to her in the full game, rather than just being a device to enable Noctis’ destiny.

And yet for all that, Kingsglaive still manages to engage and entertain in a handful of ways. Of course, part of the attraction is the astonishing animation work on show; if you thought Advent Children Complete looked amazing, Kingsglaive is on another level altogether – it simply appears photoreal at times. The illusion is tarnished somewhat by the widespread use of ADR, but the film is just incredible to look at, whether you’re gazing at its characters, locations or flashy special effects. Fight scenes are big, brash and full of carnage, well choreographed even if the director sometimes forgets to frame the action appropriately, though the latter stages of the film can hew a little too close to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel for comfort. And while much of the supporting cast are a little overwrought, the core trio of Sean Bean, Lena Headey and Aaron Paul turn in good, naturalistic performances – at least, as far as the material they’re given allows.

etro

Of course, the other big draw Kingsglaive has is that it allows us a look into that enigmatic universe that so many of us have been dying to get to know for a decade now, and that the film finally cracks open a window that we might peek inside is genuinely exciting. That fantasy based on reality is now a little closer to being real and in our hands, and Kingsglaive even has something for those that have been following every trailer since the first one back in 2006, delivering its own take on that now-iconic party/invasion scene that fans had been obsessively watching as they hung on for news, this time playing host to a meeting between Nyx and Luna, rather than Noctis and Stella.

It’s clear to see that some material excised from the game in the switch from Versus XIII to XV has been repurposed for this film, and the fact that we’ll now never experience the invasion of Insomnia in-game genuinely saddens me. As such, Kingsglaive ultimately leaves me with mixed feelings; though I’m more excited for the game having seen the film, I’m simultaneously a bit sad for what might have been. Since its re-reveal back at E3 2013, fans have been digging into every detail in an attempt to pick apart the differences between Tetsuya Nomura’s vision of Versus XIII and Hajime Tabata’s Final Fantasy XV. As a preamble to the game, Kingsglaive doesn’t give us much to go on, other than adapting the invasion of Insomnia and contriving a reason for Noctis’ absence, but there’s still the nagging sense that maybe this isn’t quite the same world we’ve spent a decade pining for, even if the nouns remain the same.

But ten years later, this is the world we’re getting, and the journey begins with Kingsglaive. As an introduction to Final Fantasy XV‘s world and lore, it works – just about – and there’s plenty for series fans to salivate over. It’s also gratifying to see just how much fantasy there actually is in this newest incarnation of the veteran series, despite the glossy modern city setting and trappings thereof. As a standalone film? Not so much. But then it was always going to be one for the fans, a gateway into Square Enix’s next grandiose adventure.