Survival Horror is making a comeback and Science Fiction is in! These are two of my favorite things, so imagine finding out that Playism, Humble Games & rose-engine had partnered up to bring us Signalis, a Sci-Fi Survival Horror. Could this be a match made in cyberhell?.
Time for Technobabble
Signalis puts you in control of an android called Elster. You get activated and your primary goal is to find your commander Ariane. The game refers to this relationship as Replika and Gestalt, which instantly drew my mind to the NieR franchise.
After a brief tutorial, Elster finds herself in a giant facility where other Replika units are wandering around like mindless killing machines. The core mystery of Signalis is finding out why you were awoken, what’s happened to the Replika workforce and where your Gestalt is.
The narrative is somewhat drip-fed initially, with ambiguous cutscenes and dialogue with other less psychopathic Replika. This is alongside the genre standard notes strewn around the facility.
The other characters you meet while exploring the facility offer insights. This is not only into the ongoing situation, but they offer you food for thought when it comes to the Replika/Gestalt relationship which helps solidify the thought that all is not what it seems.
The story didn’t quite get its claws into me from the start, but around the 2 to 3-hour mark it started to pick up. This then presented me with a story that will stick with me for some time; a narrative worthy of survival horror greats such as Silent Hill or Parasite Eve.
Tank Controls and Mechanical Death Oh My!
Signalis having its robotic heels firmly planted within the survival horror genre aims to emulate its peers while adding its own unique, metallic taste to the pot. This means that while it does fall in with a lot of the genre cliches, it also manages to provide something quite refreshing.
First of all, despite the game being isometric and near enough top-down at points, you have tank controls. They make sense here because you’re an android. Naturally, you wouldn’t be as mobile as a human. It’s still something to consider if you really abhor tank controls, but more often than not, they work.
I do feel the need to point out that at points the game will switch to a First Person camera view and the controls feel at odds here. The camera and general movement are both insanely slow, and while there isn’t any combat during these sections they do feel a little tedious. You’re sat there waiting for what seems like someone with an extreme neck injury to turn slightly to the left!
The combat is serviceable. You’re not going to be dishing out our mechanical death in droves, but at the same time, you won’t be fighting it the whole way through the game.
You hold one button to ready your main weapon which is a firearm. This brings a lock-on onto the screen. The smaller the lock-on box gets, the better chance of knocking your prey over, giving you the chance to run over and give it a swift kick. You can also get defense items such as an electric shock rod. This is activated by being in range and pressing the appropriate button. Defense items have limited use, so are ideally left as a last resort or confident bullet savers if you are sure you can get in range without issue.
Boss fights are about what you would expect from a Survival Horror. They involve a lot of running away and picking your shots at the right time. Fortunately, the bosses all have distinct tells when they are going to attack, so spend enough time with them and you’ll no doubt be able to scrape by with little to no damage.
Take it up with Management
The core gameplay in Signalis has you exploring the facility looking for keys and items that open more areas. This involves a heavy lean on backtracking, item management, and puzzle solving.
Item management is a massive factor in your progress in this title. Not only is ammo rather scarce, but you only have 6 item slots meaning that you can’t just stockpile health and ammo — you need to assess how little you can comfortably take to your next destination knowing you may pick up a key item or two there.
Fortunately, you don’t need to leave items where they are. There are handy item boxes in safe rooms where you can store any excess you might not need at that point. These are all linked, so you don’t need to worry when you move to another section of the complex.
Items can be combined to make new items. This usually comes in the form of upgrading the healing items to get them to be a little more effective, but it’s also used a lot with key items. One early example is that you need to find 2 parts of a broken keycard to progress.
The above is done within the menu system. It’s simple enough to get into with a button press, but I always felt like I had pressed the wrong button or that where I was on the menu wasn’t as clear as it could be. This was especially the case when it came to Files and the Radio where I’d activate my radio more often than not when I wanted to check a file for a puzzle answer.
Quite a Puzzling Mystery
Puzzles range from finding safe codes to combining items and even picking up certain radio frequencies on your built-in radio. While there aren’t any complete brain-scratching and out there puzzles, I did find I had to resort to the tried and tested method of writing stuff down physically. I also made liberal use of the Nintendo Switch’s screenshot button.
What I did love about Signalis was the overall atmosphere of the game. The dark rooms with splashes of neon red lighting, the controls, and combat perfectly married with the enemies which if you were slow and quiet enough you could avoid. On the flipside, messing up would result in a blood-curdling scream and sheer panic as you activate your fight or flight.
I also felt the complex as a whole was designed in a way that backtracking while still present, wasn’t as egregious as it can be in other games. The map is available at the click of a button and is easy to read and plot your next path with. Doors will tell you if they can be unlocked or not, so you generally tend to stay on the right path even when trying to figure out what item you need next.
A Beautiful Death
One of the first things that you’ll notice with Signalis is its unique almost sprite-based art direction. Using some sort of witchcraft the developer has turned 3D models into something that would look quite at home on the Sega Saturn and despite this, the game still manages to hold as much tension as something Bloober Team could put out and then some.
Everything has a beautifully smooth animation to it which just really helps amp up the tension. The enemies shamble across the screen erratically as the corridors spark from damage and lights flicker across. Yes, it’s not quite the cinematic appeal that fixed camera angles can provide, but I’d be lying if I didn’t think to myself multiple times just how damn good the game looks.
Cutscenes receive similar treatment with sprite-based anime art. Again this comes with all the fluid motion of liquid with enough animation to make every 16-bit console wish it could have pulled off anything remotely as convincing.
Silence of Electronic Sheep
Sadly there isn’t any voice acting in Signalis. This could have been the right choice as we know the Survival Horror genre is home to some hammy performances, but it would have been good to have the option or even to create some kind of unique speech to further enhance the cutscenes.
The soundtrack nails the atmosphere of being confused and alone. It’s tense when it needs to be and isn’t afraid to up the tempo when the contents of your pants hit the fan. It also has a soothing melody when you reach the safe rooms which there certainly are times you’ll be longing to hear!
Signalis is as traditional survival horror as Resident Evil 1 to 3 and Silent Hill. It has a unique art style and a different camera angle, but the result still hits just as hard.
It has a compelling mystery, interesting puzzles, combat that works within the genre, and tension that at times is frankly astounding. Signalis is an essential horror title for anyone who loves a good scare, with just enough science fiction in it to keep fans engaged.
SIGNALIS IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Humble Games for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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