We’re pretty far removed from the days when people would lock their lion keys up with three crests and one crest replica made of wax. The survival horror genre was reasonably long-lived but eventually went to where all dead genres go: the indie market. Actually, the indie industry or indie-stry (it will never catch one) doesn’t really seem to know what to do with it either. There’s a lot of love out there for the golden age of horror games, but when put in the hands of fans, it seemed to mutate into walking simulators and slasher games.
The Resident Evil series did an admirable job returning to its roots, and you definitely could still call them survival horror, but it’s too early in the morning to update my thesis.
In any case, Silent Hill wasn’t a walking simulator. An argument could definitely be made for Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but not the original formula. Signalis, on the other hand, is so survival horror it hurts. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts.
Signalis is the story of lesbian androids, which is the best kind of androids. Actually, telling you what Signalis is about would be spoiling the whole thing, so the best I can do is tell you that you play as a Replika, and you wander corridors looking for keys. Also, she’s looking really hard for someone. That someone is a woman. Lesbian androids.
This is the hardest part; describing what Signalis is. It’s a top-down Resident Evil, essentially. People lock their doors with too many keys, then put those too many keys in too many places. It’s also got a lot of Silent Hill in there. There’s a portion of the game that you could have shown me a screenshot of, and I would have readily mistaken it for a Silent Hill game. It’s all meaty and rusty. Plus, the enemies have real sexy nurse posture, if you know what I mean.
It can be derivative, for sure.
REMEMBER OUR PROMISE?
It starts you off searching through some strange facility, but it just gets weirder and weirder after that. The story is well executed. The only real complaint I have about the narrative is that it too reminds of some other media, but it’s wielded effectively to the point where I don’t really care. It brings enough of its own style to the mix and tells a tale that is rather nonstandard. So, while some of the elements may show obvious inspiration, I wouldn’t really accuse it of being derivative.
The progressively more dreamlike quality of its atmosphere helps to inform it. It takes on the lo-fi PS1-style visuals that have been popular with the retro-inspired branch of horror games, then mixes them with 2D anime cutscenes. A thick layer of propaganda art covers it all and drips into every cranny. It’s striking and effective. Easily the biggest draw of Signalis.
DAMNING WITH PRAISE
Which is sort of damning with praise. I want to be clear that I walked away from Signalis feeling satisfied, but at the same time, I had quite a few problems with my experience.
At this point, if you don’t want me to reveal something that might dampen your enjoyment of Signalis, you should probably turn back now. To be clear, it’s an easily exploitable design flaw that you may otherwise miss.
The biggest problem I had is that I came across a trick to it very early on. The health system is pretty standard, giving you green, yellow, and red levels of status that are pretty self-explanatory. The problem is that the red level is misleading. You can take a few hits while you’re critical, but as long as you get away without receiving a killing blow, your health recovers back to the baseline of critical. The big problem here was that few enemies can lay in enough damage to kill you before you can run away and recover.
I was playing with godmode on. Running past enemies was now the most effective strategy to the point where they were mere annoyances that I rarely dealt with. I finished Signalis with enough repair spray that I could have bathed in it and so much ammunition that I didn’t even try some of the weapons I picked up. Given my disposition towards horror games, it was unlikely that Signalis was really going to scare me, but now any tension it might have had was nullified, and the challenge was out the window.
Without there being much threat, the mechanics in the game began to feel very artificial. It felt less like I was trying to survive and more like I was on a scavenger hunt, checking things off the list as I went. It’s easy to miss that Signalis isn’t a continuous endeavor, but rather a series of chunks piled one on top of the other. You’re in one area, you find the keys to go to the next area, which has its own set of keys.
You’re given six inventory slots, which again is like Resident Evil. They even have the magical stockpile boxes that you stash things in when your pockets get full, and the contents are shared across all magical boxes. I’m just saying: there’s a puzzle where you need six items, which means making multiple trips or lining your pockets with only those items. Limited inventory is fine by me, but it comes with a responsibility that is flaunted here.
Enemies also don’t stay down. They’re sort of like the Crimson Head zombies in the Resident Evil remake. You can put them down for a while, but unless you burn the corpse with a scarce resource, they’ll eventually get back up. I’m not sure why I’m bringing this up like it’s a complaint because I think it’s a fine mechanic.
Okay, so here’s a complaint: There aren’t enough boss battles. But also I’m fine with that.
OOPS. I BROKE IT
So you might be a bit surprised that the reason Signalis didn’t firmly click with me is because I figured out a way of cheesing through it. Yes, that is exactly why. I don’t know what to tell you. I discovered it really early, and then there was just no way of getting the mustard back into the packet. What was I supposed to do? Pretend that strategy wasn’t there for the sake of humouring the game’s design? I can’t do that.
But while I found out how to jump over the turnstile, everything else was gravy. Signalis might have leaned a little too hard on its influences in places, but if anything, that just resulted in a more confident end result. Its narrative, while often abstract and obtuse, is effective and satisfying. The puzzle design is also a great callback to the heyday of survival horror.
I just don’t know how to reconcile the fact that I found an easily exploitable weakness in the game, and it blunted the entire experience. I can’t. It’s there. I’ve shown it to you, potentially ruining your experience too. You’re welcome.
This review was conducted on a PC with a digital copy of the game. It was provided by the publisher.