It’s no secret that I love horror games. If you have read my previous articles on horror games, or been to one of my streams, you know I will play just about any kind of sub-genre. The dark, atmospheric thrillers that boggle the brain. Gory, body bursting bloodfest that are not for the squeamish. Ghost, goblins, monsters, and demons all populate my game library. This year has been particularly good to us, with such entries as Metal: Hellsinger, The Mortuary Assistant and Stalked. And we have more to look forward to through the rest of the year. Each one has its firm foothold in a dominate area.
Then there is SIGNALIS, the debut title from rose-engine. I’ll admit I’m stumped in how to describe it. See, one of my first solo horror series was Dead Space– and you had better believe I’m looking forward to its remake. Dead Space redefined the space horror sub-genre. It was gritty and gruesome to a degree we hadn’t seen before. And damn… did the internals flow. But it wasn’t just a gorefest. There was a masterfully told mystery as well. It kept us intrigued while we tried to keep our lunches down.
SIGNALIS could almost be its spiritual predeccessor, in everything from story to its creepy, unsettling feel. Had it been published 15 years ago it would have been hailed as a marvel. Even now, it is in its own indescribable class. What makes it different from other horror games? Grab your limited use zappers as we get lost in the world of SIGNALIS.
Dammed that we did
Earth, and humans in general, suck big time in most catastrophic world ending situations. We are often the cause of the diminishing resources, deadly plagues, and general chaos. And since we just can’t be happy killing our own planet, we must find others to destroy. Dooming whole universes to our greed and ending in tragedy is not a new plot. But even a tale as old as time has a few new twists.
The humans of SIGNALIS felt they were the supreme species and set out to conquer the universe. They created a ruling faction AEON and developed beings called Replikas- humanoid cyborgs and paired them with other humans to take on a variety of tasks. Elster is one such Replika. Paired with a human captain, Ariane Yeong, Elster awakens from her cryopod to discover their ship has crashed on a snowy planet.
Immediately, we are thrust into a mystery. Upon searching the ship, it becomes apparent that Elster is alone, and Ariane is no where to be found. After figuring out how to leave the ship, gathering a few necessary supplies along the way, she must make her way through the blinding snow to a seemingly abandoned outpost. It was easy to draw comparisons between the landscape and Dead Space 3.
Things that want to eat your face
It turns out, the outpost is actually an underground mine. Down into the deep dark hole, and through an even darker tunnel, Elster arrives at the empty “reception area” of the mine. A note shines a bit of light on the issues its facing- lack of staffing. Good thing they had the forethought to leave the keycard we need. Well… perhaps “good” is a little bit too lighthearted. Gaining entry to the rest of the mine introduces us to other Replikas: some alive, and some not. It’s obvious something has gone wrong.
This is soon confirmed by a few back-to-back events- Elster’s first encounters with the diseased creatures bent on killing anything that comes near them, and another human who has no qualms about chopping them into bits. She seems to know more about the situation, telling Elster that she is looking for someone as well. Repeatedly throughout the first chapter, we meet humans and Replikas just this side of Wonderland Madd, who tell Elster that something is wrong down in the mine, and she doesn’t belong there.
Adding to the mystery and horror are cleverly placed cut scenes, showing past? or future events? and the decaying of Elster. As the game continues, the lines are blurred between what is real and what is insanity as we wander through a labyrinth of darkness. It’s unsettling.
An unsettling game
That is the word I keep coming back to: unsettling. SIGNALIS takes the ideas of atmospheric, survival horror to a new level. As a top down 2D game, it shouldn’t have been as unnerving as it is. Elster moves through each room and corridor with a fluid grace, but still retains the almost slow movements we are used to seeing. Shadows and light keep you guessing as to what can be maneuvered around. Some places look blocked, only to have a small path Elster can squeeze through.
But that isn’t always apparent until you’re feeling from those screeching creatures and cursing your lack of ammo. This also adds to those feelings of unease. Weapons are in short supply, as is your inventory space. So, it is imperative to exercise inventory management. Thankfully, there are storage boxes in the “safe rooms” where you can save your progress. And yet… those are also few in supply. Yeah, I’m sure you see the pattern here.
There is so much in SIGNALIS that keeps you jumping, heart in your throat. Can you reach the exit of a room before the creatures find you? Will you have enough ammo to take you through a particularly packed area? Is it finally dead? Did that noise come from the left or right? And why is there pretty music all of a sudden?
Can you hear their screams?
Speaking of…I have to say the sound team is to be highly praised. The noises of each area you explore is unique… and again, very unsettling. The swish of the door locks echo through the emptiness. The groans of the elevators and other mechanical pieces make your teeth grit. Even the sound of an object being added to your inventory has a heavy boom.
However, there is nothing to compare to the horrendous screams of the creatures hunting you. It is inhuman and spine chilling. Imagine the mangling of an animal and you have something close. They are relentless. Even after knocking them down to the floor, the sound continues.
In that moment, you only want it to stop. And you can. A “stomp box” will pop up when you down an enemy. While it’s thrashing about on the ground, Elster has the option to stomp it out of its misery- yes, like Dead Space. The sound is both horrific and satisfying.
A total head scratcher
The combat is about the only thing that is straight forward in SIGNALIS. The areas of the mine are twists and turns of confusion, even with maps. I played through the game three times, and each time I swore I found something new. A new area, new object, new pattern of behavior. In fact, I’m still unsure what was more a fevered dream, and what was part of a playthrough.
Puzzles litter the landscape. From the beginning of the game, Elster is presented with the problem of how to open her captain’s cryopod. The puzzle must be solved before we can proceed further into the game. And that is considered a simple one. Safes keep important items and information out of Elster’s reach, with no two safe combinations being the same. In one case, the code was a radio frequency, in another, it was a cypher. Each puzzle is unique to the area and how to handle it.
SIGNALIS doesn’t hold your hand by any means, using cleverly placed manuals, guide and other objects as ways to instruct you in how to use your weapons, radio and more. While there isn’t an exact science in how you approach gameplay, it does matter what things you unlock and when. Some areas become inaccessible once you leave them and if you haven’t gotten everything you need- whelp… good luck.
Final Thoughts on SIGNALIS
SIGNALIS keeps you guessing during the entire game. Its mystery isn’t solved at first glance. Just when you think you have everything figured out, something new twists its way into your mind. It’s also not an easy game. That’s not to say the gameplay is tough, rather the mental tasks and overreaching feelings of doom create an atmosphere that is unnerving. The sounds that echo throughout the game still linger in my head. The images haunt my dreams.
SIGNALIS is not a game for everyone. For those who don’t like puzzlers, or a slow moving story, this game is not for you. But if you want an original take on the survival horror genre that rivals Silent Hill and Dead Space, pick up SIGNALIS and get lost in the world of our own demise.
Review code generously provided by Humble Games.