How fitting that the start of the year saw me play one of the best survival horror games in a long time, and bookending the year at the end is another excellent horror experience – one that is even better.

SIGNALIS was not only a surprise, but also easily the best indie game I’ve played this year. From start to finish, it was flawless as both a narrative experience and as a survival horror experience. For this cheap price, you really do not want to miss out on this game.

Many thanks to Humble Games for the review code. 

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AT THE MOUNTAINS OF SIGNALIS
The crux of SIGNALIS revolves around a Replika (which is basically an android) who wakes up from stasis only to find that the vessel she has been travelling on has crashed into an arctic planet. People around her seem to be largely dead, with reports of a strange infection that seems to have affected some of the crew. The protagonist, Elster, heads out to search for her lost companion, but she’ll need to be prepared to face the unknown horrors that lie ahead if she wants to reunite with her.

Set in the distant future, as you can probably gather from that brief synopsis, there’s a real sense of the dystopian world that pervades everything around you. From environmental storytelling and the notes that are left scattered around (people really love writing on pen and paper in these types of games, even ones set in the far future!) to the conversations you’ll have with the small handful of survivors you encounter, you realise that this horrible situation wasn’t exactly a fairytale before the incident occurred.

The narrative feels like a blend of Lovecraft and Lynch, with the focus being on cosmic horror and stumbling across forbidden, eldritch knowledge. It also occasionally cuts away to a completely different perspective, making the story all very non-linear and more like a puzzle to follow. It’s a wise decision too, as fans of Lynch will know how unsettling his work can be – even though they’re not strictly works of horror. The main thread is clear enough to follow for the average gamer to follow and feel satisfied, but there’s so much more here to this world that many will be compelled to jump into a second playthrough in order to attempt to piece everything together. Not only is it one of the best horror narratives I’ve experienced, it’s also probably one of the best game narratives I’ve experienced too and would be worth the price of admission alone.

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SIGNALIS FROM SATURN
Whilst calling this a retro-style survival horror game will no doubt evoke images of the likes of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, the game also has more than a touch of the Kenji Eno masterpiece Enemy Zero for the Sega Saturn. Whilst most of your time will be spent navigating environments in a 3D perspective, you’ll also find yourself thrown into a first person perspective surprisingly often. Aside from the aforementioned narrative scenes, many puzzle areas (and even small rooms) will force you into a first person perspective with a reticle that both looks around and interacts with objects. With it, you can pick up objects, push buttons, throw levers, and even focus on other objects in the area. Sucking you into the first person perspective really helps you focus on these sections, and certainly gave me nostalgic feelings of the Eno classic.

The main thing that sets the visual style of SIGNALIS apart from other games in the genre is its unique blend of German and Japanese aesthetics; anime characters, cyborgs, and kanji are offset by militarism, propaganda, and frequent German text and dialogue throughout the aircraft. It’s an interesting blend that I’ve never really encountered before and it really helps give the game its own identity; even the anime elements are tastefully done and remain grounded enough to ensure that it doesn’t clash with the rest of the game and ruin the atmosphere.

The presentation throughout is pretty much faultless all the way through to be honest, with the visual presentation only being outdone by the sound design. Classical music punctuates dramatic moments, and Silent Hill style static screeching starts blaring in your ear holes as enemies become aware of your presence. It’s so masterfully done that you can tell that the audio design was clearly at the front of their minds – especially as the game also utilises a radio in your inventory that plays an important part in the story, some of the puzzles, and even the combat on occasion too!

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THE CYBORG OUT OF SPACE
As a retro survival horror experience, fans of the genre will feel right at home from the very start, You’ll mostly be wandering around, encountering a range of doors that will either be unlocked, inaccessible, or locked in a multitude of curious ways.

In order to progress, you’ll find notes that either guide you towards what you need to be doing, or fill you in on some of the overall lore. Helpful notes are also usually either nearby locked doors or puzzles to make things easier for those who may be stuck with what they need to be doing. The game is extremely helpful and wants you to keep progressing without feeling like you have no idea what to do next. Keys are obvious way to enter locked doors, but there are also a huge variety of puzzles too that will either guide you forward or reward you with the key upon completion.

As a survival horror game, these puzzles make up the majority of the actual gameplay. Avoiding the typical Rube Goldberg style puzzles that have you doing a bunch of different unconnected things, instead you’re likely to find a puzzle that requires multiple objects that are all obtained via their own individual methods. The good thing is that there are enough clues about that very few of them feel particularly obtuse, with there being only one puzzle that had me scratching my head for a bit. It’s not that the puzzles don’t offer any kind of challenge, but they’re challenging in a way where you understand what you need to be doing.

One neat early puzzle has you picking up a open a hatch that will allow you to lockpick your way through using an x-ray tool to see how the pins are set. It’s one of the best implementations of lockpicking I’ve seen in a game, even if it is only used for that one specific puzzle. Later puzzles get even more creative, especially once you obtain the aforementioned radio item. This typically has you utilising its various frequencies to solve puzzles, and they’re frequent enough to make it feel like an intentional mechanic without it becoming overbearing.

The only issue that you’ll find with some of the puzzles is that your inventory is often more limited than you’d like, with only six slots to cover weapons, ammo, health, keys, and varying puzzle items. This is, of course, to make your survival experience even more nerve-racking as you’re incentivised to keep the bare minimum with you at all times. Do you risk not carrying any extra ammo just so you can find the right door for this key? This is a question you’ll be asking yourself frequently as the game progresses.

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Thankfully the game has Resident Evil-style item boxes that allow you to store and retrieve items from any save room location. These are surprisingly frequent, which means that backpacking is kept to a minimum – although I can’t deny that having a key pouch to keep them in a separate of your inventory would have made some sections far less of a hassle. Speaking of save rooms, saving can only be done manually via terminals in these special rooms – but you can save as many times as you like. It’s a nice modernisation of the system that still makes you want to be careful without ever being particularly punishing.

Where the game does punish you though is with your resources. Guns, ammo, and health are all in short supply meaning that you’ll need to take care of who and what you shoot. You’ll find a variety of weapons at your disposal, that you’ll probably want to make good use of throughout the game to help get you through some rough spots. You won’t find much ammunition for any of them though, so sometimes sneaking around enemies is a far safer choice. To do this, you simple need to walk around the creatures out of sight; their vision is pretty crappy, so as long as you don’t have your flashlight or radio on, you should be able to avoid having to get into firefights a lot of the time.

The creatures themselves are terrifying abominations of your former crewmates, with variants that can move faster, utilise shields, or just be a plain nuisances. They feel different from the zombies in something like Resident Evil, although the game does borrow the mechanic introduced in the remake whereby creatures need to be burned to put them down forever. Flares are limited in supply, so I’d recommend hoarding them and only using them in corridors outside safe rooms where you’ll find yourself most often. 

There are a few boss-style encounters throughout the game, but there were surprisingly fewer than I had expected. The presentation of the ones that are there are excellent and show off how truly terrifying they are. They may not be the toughest fights ever, but they’re certainly thrilling and feel like a welcome change of pace when they do appear.

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With all this praise I’m bestowing on the game, you’d assume that the game was perfect? Well, no. Not quite – but thankfully the few issues it does have aren’t enough to spoil the experience.

Locking on with your gun can sometimes seem a little finnicky, with a red square indicating whether or not you have a clear shot on your target – a square that sometimes didn’t really want to appear. The game does have an auto-aiming system, but it seems to be pretty loose and requires that you do most of the heavy lifting. This unreliability, however, also adds to the tension of combat situations and made me question whether I should fight or fly more often than I normally would. Unfortunately, the lock on system is also present with the occasional doorway too and require that you stand in a very particular place if you want to exit. This also adds to the stress of encounters, but not in a good way as it did result in me getting hit while failing to escape a couple of times.

All in all though, not only did SIGNALIS seemingly come out of nowhere, but it packs a fantastic game into its 8 hour or so running time – a time that’s lengthy when compared to its peers, but also never drags at any point either. Considering how well the game is presented and just how poilished everything is, the €19.99 asking price is an absolute bargain.

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SIGNALIS is one of those games that does almost everything right. It’s hard to show off its beauty and how intriguing and compelling the narrative is through mere words and screenshots alone. Much like the eldritch tome featured within, the very essence of the game just seems to insidiously fill your soul and makes it impossible to put down.