The survival horror genre has changed incredibly since its birth in the late 80s and early 90s. Game design that used to make players afraid and helpless has given way to COD-like mechanics and action movie sequences. When playing the latest entry into this relatively still-popular genre, players feel more like Captain Price than Jill Valentine. Signalis, released in October of 2022 by rose-engine, tries to recapture survival horror's origins by blending anime, cyberpunk, and classic game design. The result is a haunting story of suffering, devotion, and existential terror.
In Signalis, you play as Elster, an LSTR Replika unit. Replikas are reproducible automatons created for military use by an unnamed Orwellian nation. Elster wakes up after a disaster on her crashed ship and finds that her crewmates are either missing or dead. The only clue she has about her crew's fate is a faded photograph of her missing partner, Ariane, who is also a Replika unit, and some documents scattered around the ship. Armed with nothing else, Elster sets out to find Ariane, no matter the cost.
Signalis' story is presented in a disjointed manner and is very open to interpretation. The game conveys the narrative through documents and characters that Elster encounters. Players unfamiliar with text-based storytelling, which is very common in indie games, should understand there's a lot of reading to do in Signalis. Players may be tempted to skip reading most of what they find, but the lore plays an essential role in the gameplay; more on this later.
The game contains plenty of cut scenes and first-person segments to break up the isometric view and long stretches of text. These scenes are welcome respites and nicely move the overall story of Signalis along. Familiarity with German and Japanese will also help players make more sense of what they see.
Even with these various mediums, Signalis' story is very disjointed, and there is very little that the player can rest on to make sense of what is happening. This is not to say that this method of storytelling is detrimental to the experience; quite the contrary. For a survival horror game aiming to make the player feel uncomfortable and not in control, the story's confusion adds to the experience rather than detracting from it. Players experience Elster's struggle, fear, and doubt alongside her. They do not just watch Elster; they inhabit her. The story is supported by the atmosphere created by the game's graphics, art direction, sound design, and gameplay.
Signalis' graphics are gruesome and visceral. Despite being a so-called 2.5D game, the small, low-resolution three-dimensional sprites still illicit fear and repulsion. This speaks to the expertise of the game’s development team that Signalis can do so much with so little. For those looking to get the whole retro experience, a CRT mode is available, replicating the look of a 90s-era monitor.
Signalis boasts an impressive musical score that heightens the tension in enemy encounters and creates an oppressive atmosphere overall. The masterfully composed score perfectly accompanies the game's themes of futility, terror, and struggle, with its tempo and tone never feeling out of place. There are also some beautiful ambient post-rock moments at the sparsely distributed save points, reminiscent of those similar moments of comfort in past Resident Evil games. Of all the factors contributing to the Signalis' impact, none does so more than the gameplay. A bit of history about the survival horror genre will serve to understand why this is so.
Survival Horror became popular in the late 80s and into the 90s, pioneered by games like Sweet Home (1989), Resident Evil (1996), and Parasite Eve (1998), with Resident Evil being the big breakout hit. The original game sold over 2.75 million copies alone. The genre continues to be highly influential today with ongoing franchises like Resident Evil, Outlast, The Evil Within, The Last of Us, and Silent Hill (which has no less than three sequels currently in the works).
The hallmark of the early survival horror genre was giving players a limited supply of weapons and ammo and pitting them against terrifying and powerful enemies. When these early games were released, hardware and game development were still in their infancy compared to what gamers would expect today. The lack of graphical fidelity, responsive game engines, and design capabilities made for a rough gaming experience, to say the least.
Current-day survival horror games, such as Resident Evil 8: Village (2021), still feature tense gameplay interspersed with puzzles and limited ammo; however, they differ significantly in the player's controls. While a game like The Last of Us (2013) has tight and intuitive controls, early survival horror games had some of the worst controls that have ever been seen in gaming. But these inadequate controls were central to the experience. During tense moments of combat, players would not only be fighting against the enemy but frantically struggling to aim their weapons and manage their inventory, often failing in the attempt. Only once these controls were mastered did the game begin to feel conquerable and rewarding, and only to those willing to suffer through the brutal learning curves. In Signalis, rose-engine leans heavily into this classic control approach.
Combat is challenging to master, and clunky controls often make it hard to shoot precisely or reload quickly. Elster's aiming/turning can be painfully slow, evident when multiple enemies are approaching from different directions. Even if the player manages to point a loaded weapon at an enemy, the shot may or may not kill the target. Combat is always a risky affair in Signalis.
The inventory is limited to only six slots for equipment, weapons, ammo, and crucial quest items. This system forces players to make choices based on their desired objectives. Since there's no way to drop and retrieve items later, except in their stash, players may need to use or destroy less essential items to make room for important quest items. This requires conscious foresight to avoid clogging the inventory at crucial moments.
The save system is a classic point-save file system, with only a few save rooms per area. To avoid losing valuable progress, players must save frequently and often. Forgetting to do so could mean the loss of twenty to thirty minutes worth of work. The result of all these factors is a combat system that feels unreliable, cumbersome, and even feeble... as it should be in a classic survival horror game. In Signalis' later stages, muscle memory kicks in, and players become more comfortable controlling Elster. Accordingly, ammo counts rise, and the game's rewarding enemy encounters become more frequent.
The only shortcoming in the game is the need for more indicators of what to do next. There is a lot of backtracking in Signalis. Since some enemies can regenerate after being defeated, players are forced into a playstyle that aims to avoid enemies instead of fighting them.
The game boasts puzzles of varying degrees of difficulty, ranging from evident to 'Am I smart enough to do this?' The puzzles are cleverly intertwined with the game's fragmented story, so players should pay close attention to the information available in the surrounding environment if they want to progress.
Signalis has some replay value. There are multiple endings, which depend on the number of enemies killed and the time taken to complete the game. A basic playthrough on the default difficulty will take around ten to fifteen hours, and this reviewer spent twelve and a half hours completing one ending.
Signalis captures the tension and fear of facing one's ineptitude while holding off an onslaught of powerful enemies, a feeling classic survival horror games did uniquely well. All aspects of the game come together to tell a story of fear, despair, and defiance. Signalis is a throwback to an era of games when the genre was more interested in providing a genuine and terrifying gaming challenge than appealing to broader market trends. It is highly recommended for survival horror fans, especially those nostalgic about the genre's past.
Signalis is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, and Microsoft Windows.