I spent the end of October — so, Halloween time — with two terrific games that couldn't be any farther apart in tone or in play.
Frictional Games' "SOMA" is the sort of game one would play during the scary season. It's dark, it's weird and it's utterly spine-chilling. You'll often find yourself playing it with hunched shoulders, as if Jason Voorhees himself is sadistically grazing your cheek with his machete before striking the killing blow.
Set in PATHOS-II, a futuristic research station on the ocean floor of an Earth decimated by an extinction-level event, this first-person survival horror game doesn't let you do much. Protagonist Simon Jarrett, who mysteriously wakes up there, can walk and press buttons — and that's about it.
Like Frictional's "Amnesia" games, as well as "P.T." and "Outlast," "SOMA" paralyzes you with fear by paralyzing you from protection. When the station's techno-organic terrors known as the WAU manifest, all you can do is run and hide — or take your one allotted hit and hope the corded abominations don't find you during your next try.
Between run-ins with them, Frictional's masterful sound and visual design keeps your nerves fraying. The dark, cavernous calm of PATHOS-II's labs and the ocean water separating them is broken only by audiovisual static that dials up as the WAU get closer. Combined with enough controller vibration to numb your hands, the ripping picture and pulsing cacophony cuts right to your amygdala. Being chased by the WAU, barely able to see where to turn next, is one of the most overwhelming sensory experiences I've ever played.
As you maneuver Jarrett out of PATHOS-II, all the while learning how he got there, "SOMA" raises some heady themes about the essence of humanity. It engages you with them, too: Through the game's few choices, you'll find yourself genuinely weighing its ethical and existential dilemmas, wondering what you would do, how you would feel at such a precipice.
Jarrett's own story is one of trauma and recovery, but yours and the rest of "SOMA's" is one of survival and possibility. Indeed, walking along the ocean floor, feeling the infinite deep blue murk in all directions, may be the most daunting thing in the game.
On the contrary, there's nothing remotely aversive about "Yoshi's Woolly World."
Like "Kirby and the Rainbow Curse" earlier this year, the Wii U game realizes one of Nintendo's cuddlier mascots with an adorable tactile aesthetic: fabric.
And there's a lovely game under the surface. After Kamek (young Bowser's wizard-hatted caretaker) breaks down the yarn dino inhabitants of Yoshi's island into raw spools, the sole green survivor treks across six worlds to save their brethren. (A red Yoshi tags along in co-op.)
Played only with the Wii U GamePad, Pro Controller or Classic Controller, it's a straightforward platformer stuffed with ideas. Many involve Yoshi's new ability to gather balls of yarn and spit them in the direction of a pendulating arrow. The flying fabric can fill in platform frames, uncover collectibles and, of course, dispatch Shy Guys, Piranha Plants and the rest of the Mario rogues gallery on the game's roll call.
The first two of those uses frisk an interesting theme in "Yoshi's Woolly World." For a game about fabric, about what you can feel and see, it frequently rewards reaching for the unseeable. Sometimes, just jumping into the air for no reason raises a question bubble from the ether, ready to shower you with jewels or a piece of a themed Yoshi for you to patch back together. Just because you can't see it — or "awww" at it — doesn't mean it's not there.
The fun of the game mostly hangs on the yarn's next-level applications, like a wire-framed Chain Chomp you can clothe and unclothe to plow through obstacles, or giant Boos you can only hit with ricochet shots. If the game has one hole, however, it's an occasional failure to revisit its best mechanics after they make only one appearance or two. (Its bosses can be a bit breezy, too.)
Vibrant, fluid graphics and a fun score — the "Frankenstein" soundalike in one lava level is my favorite — outfit a charming, warming package in "Yoshi's Woolly World."