REVIEW: Signalis proves classic survival horror still has a place
The survival horror genre struggles constantly between reaching back into its past to relive its glory days and treading into the future to attempt to innovate — oftentimes against the tropes and expectations folks have for the genre, which inevitably leads to gamers crying foul.
SIGNALIS tries to slip in the gap between the two. While it clearly leans into its inspirations, PSX era survival horror and some weird combination of David Lynch and Evangelion, SIGNALIS forges its own path and crafts one of the most interesting survival horror releases in years, even with its faults.
Come try to understand this incomprehensible (in more ways than one) horror adventure with me.
Just the Facts
Publisher: Humble Games
Platform(s): PC*, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S
Release Date: Oct. 27, 2022
Review code provided by publisher.
SIGNALIS comes to us from a new two-person team, rose-engine, based out of Hamburg, Germany. Designer-illustrator duo Barbara Wittmann and Yuri Stern combined forces, with the help of the Humble Games publishing wing (which continues to publish bangers, might I add), to craft their first major release since beginning to make games together in 2014. Their breakout game, SIGNALIS, is a "traditional" horror game with all the limited resources, confined spaces, and horrifying shadow beasts you could ever want.
In it, you wake up from some sort of hibernation aboard a crashed spaceship on a snowy planet, playing as an android looking for their humanoid counterpart. A Replika looking for a Gestalt. That is your only goal. Your driving force in the darkness. On the planet, a destroyed facility of Replikas and Gestalts stands vacant and derelict, and the tale of what happened there slowly unravels after you pull yourself out of the metal carcass of your ship and descend into the dark underground fortress.
Plenty of horrifying things await you when you enter. Blood. Bodies. Corrupted machines and horrified humans and a disease that claims them both. As you navigate the hallways, pushing toward some goal that you aren't even quite sure about, memories that aren't yours (or are they?) haunt you and bleed, sometimes literally, into this foggy reality you've awoken in. Starting with sterile environments on your ship, things get bloodier and more disturbing as you descend, before you eventually end up in the flesh pits of the mines below the planet's surface.
The game's story is one of purposeful obscurity. The kind of thing that pulls you along, giving you pieces of the puzzle, but never quite offering that one key piece to help you make sense of it all. It's the kind of game that'll immediately have you looking up theories and interpretations to try and understand what you just experienced and still not be entirely sure what the truth is.
"That's what seals SIGNALIS as an experience as stressful and enjoyable as the classics it hopes to evoke. That fearful decision-making."
No matter the confusion, rose-engine tells its story well. The game jumps through time, memories, states of being, and perspectives. You're never quite sure what's real, what's imagined, or what's a mental construction. Not unlike the traditional horror games that stand as inspiration, like Silent Hill, even when you're confused, the developer duo pulling the strings behind the scenes still manages to draw every emotion imaginable out of you.
The writing of SIGNALIS is something to behold. It floods your mind with haunting and evocative lines.
"Things that ought to crawl have learned to walk."
"It calls me in a sea of flesh, we will become one, but I can never go back to being me."
"The red eye beyond the gate showed me, no, touched me, poisoned me."
These perfectly skin-crawling bits of work lay out the scenes with an almost poetic sense of dread. Even if the flesh walls, piles of bodies, and twitchy zombified machines don't do anything to get your heart pumping... a line hidden deep within a note found in some tucked-away corner definitely will.
Another thing of note in SIGNALIS's storytelling is its interesting blend of Asian and European histories and cultural influences. Tied with the generally militarized nature of the facility and the looming existence of an interplanetary war, the game draws just as much from real-world horrors including totalitarian states and forced labor camps as it draws from the retro-futuristic survival horror genre and franchises like Alien.
SIGNALIS's gameplay loop is a true throwback to old-school survival horror in every way imaginable.
Limited inventory and resources. Tons of back and forth slowly unlocking an area as you solve puzzles and find keys. Enemies that can be put down but will rise again unless you permanently kill them. Dedicated safe zones where you can save your progress and store excess items. All in all, the horror manifests mainly in trying to understand when to expend resources and when you're better off dodging past the shambling husks patrolling a room.
Just like classic PSX horror, once you understand that the best move is simply to avoid enemies, some of the thrills are bypassed. But the constant sense of dread and feeling of vulnerability prevails — especially when you're never quite sure what's waiting just behind the door of each new room, for the story, or for your attempted survival.
SIGNALIS also uses occasional perspective shifts to mix things up, taking you from the top-down third-person angle used for most of the gameplay into brief story-driven first-person interludes. Sometimes, entire puzzles or rooms take place from this new perspective, taking away your ability to see something waiting just behind you or just out of view, and infusing an extra layer of fear from time to time. These feel reminiscent of some of the indie horror classics of the modern age, showing the game's ability to siphon impactful tactics from all eras of horror and use them to great effect.
The ability to dip, dive, and dodge your way through most encounters makes combat feel less important in the end. But because each bullet, consumable melee weapon (like Resident Evil's daggers), and health kit is so valuable and fleeting, the moments when you choose to expend them are that much more weighted.
Using any of the game's seven unique weapons to dispatch the varied enemy types you encounter... feels good. With a lock-on system that readies your weapon and slows your movement to a crawl, making the decision to stop and fire becomes an important one. Not one to take lightly, especially considering your limited ammo and the eventual beefy boss fights you'll encounter at the end of each new area. Healing is an easier decision to make, as it takes a simple prompt in the menu to accomplish, but it's the way you experience damage that is worth noting. Each hit you take staggers you drastically and your movement becomes hindered the more damage you take. So attempting to dodge through a room is another of those important decisions to make.
That's what seals SIGNALIS as an experience as stressful and enjoyable as the classics it hopes to evoke. That fearful decision-making. That careful planning ahead, taking into consideration everything at your disposal and what you expect might be waiting for you in the next room. It's just as good as anything the classics can provide, with all the modernization you'd hope for from a game released in 2022 (thank god tank controls are left behind).
Another key element to nail — especially for a game evoking Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and its spooky contemporaries — are puzzles. And I'm happy to report: SIGNALIS's puzzles are really clever and feature very little hand-holding, for good and bad.
As you navigate the darkened hallways of the vaguely incomprehensible base of horrors, you occasionally find yourself up against another classic of the genre: weirdly complex lock systems for simple containers and rooms!
You'll have to consume nearly everything you run into to understand rose-engine's puzzles — written notes and official documentation left behind on desks and in lockers, propaganda posters on walls that provide context for the world and crucial information that you'll utilize to understand solutions needed for each puzzle. Almost everything you encounter is important to either the overarching story or specific puzzles in each area.
"The blend of modern tools and classic tropes is incredibly effective and is ultimately SIGNALIS's contribution to the future of the genre."
You're offered an in-game screenshot tool that helps you keep track of solutions hidden in other rooms, which is a necessity to remember some of the denser puzzles. There's also a unique radio built into your Replika's toolkit that allows you to tune into frequencies to get morse code data, identify enemies in a room full of mimics, and play sounds to help solve puzzles. As you flick through channels, there is a near-constant fear of tripping into a forbidden frequency not meant for human consumption. Solving the puzzles is satisfying, but as the main driving force of your progression, it can reveal some cumbersome faults. With your limited inventory, you often find yourself running back and forth to bring key items to certain areas. You can sacrifice weapons or ammo or tools like your flashlight to be able to make the least amount of trips possible, but that, of course, comes with the risk of failing a run through a particularly dangerous room and having to restart the whole thing.
And with the game, rightfully and respectfully, not giving you blatant hints as to what items go with which puzzles, you can find yourself making the dangerous trip from the nearest saferoom to a far off puzzle room... only to find you've brought the wrong thing to the wrong place. Or it ends up similar to that classic point and click puzzle experience of "I know what the solution likely is, I just don't know how the game wants me to get to that solution."
It's one of a few frustrations along my nine-hour playthrough, with most rooted in the generally cumbersome inventory issues. It's key to the experience, of course, but it ends up feeling more limiting during some of the game's key moments. Six slots to juggle any of the game's seven weapons, the associated ammo, key puzzle items, health items, and equipment (like the flashlight and the screenshot tool)? It's hard to figure out the perfect balance and ends up feeling more frustrating than satisfying to find that "perfect" balance.
The bosses too were not as interesting as I think the game tried to make them, turning most of the encounters into "blast away and pray" instead of something more engaging. That said, experiences like that ARE satisfying when you've done everything you can to save ammo and get to finally unload on bosses like these. And, at least, the final boss encounter ends up being a fun little puzzle to deconstruct too, sending the story and gameplay off on a high note.
The blend of modern tools and classic tropes is incredibly effective and is ultimately SIGNALIS's contribution to the future of the genre. It still feels held back by its dedication to the limiting roots of its predecessors, but this blend shows the potential of finding the balance between the two, and I hope this proves to be a beacon through the horrifying darkness for those who attempt to tap into the market in the future.
If there's anything that SIGNALIS pulls off that's truly its own — and does so without fault — it's aesthetics. Pixel-heavy PS1-esque textures sell a particular grim vibe and help when trying to create incomprehensible horrors. Cutscenes and gameplay sequences are spliced with subliminal messages, with writing and visuals that, again, don't make sense until they do. Cutscenes switch between beautiful anime-inspired pixel portraits and bulky in-game 3D models, giving it a unique visual style.
With the workers of this society existing somewhere between human and machine, women standing as the primary gender represented in their society, and no part of the experience feeling sexualized in any way, it's a world that avoids the pitfalls of even some of the legendary horror franchises of the past.
rose-engine have created a deeply compelling world whose visuals only amplify every part of the experience. Yuri and Barbara have been artists their whole lives and it comes through. SIGNALIS has a vision, and especially when we're talking about games that find inspiration in the best of their predecessors, that's something to be commended.
Visually, it wows. Aurally, it horrifies. The industrial noise of the far-future sci-fi base you navigate through is the majority of your soundtrack, grating and grinding as you traipse through an empty facility keeping itself alive amidst the ruin of its society. Encountering enemies is an immediate anxiety attack as their horrifying animalistic screams ring out when attacked and a medley of alarms and noise ring out to signify the moment. The brief flourishes of music as well, usually soft and delicate to disrupt the otherwise quiet dread.
It's been some time since I finished SIGNALIS and parts of it still linger with me. I feel a chill when I think about the implications of some sequences, the dark distorted beasts glitching hidden in the shadows of the room, and the horrifying mental scars the game's characters were left with.
While in the moment, the frustrations felt bigger than anything else, they've all but melted away with time. All I can remember is how great of a horror experience this was.
video games are good and SIGNALIS is . . . GREAT. (8/10)
+ incredible aesthetics, a great blend of old and new survival horror tropes, an experience that keeps its thrills from beginning to end, compelling story
- a limiting inventory system bogs down nearly every aspect of the experience, easier to avoid combat (and in a way horror) than engage with it, confusing story
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