It is a celebratory occasion when I find a fun horror game that is, truly, a horror game. It’s a surprisingly rare game that fills you with dread, where the mere act of exploration brings a sense of unease. There might be a monster, there might not be. They only serve to heighten your state of anxious arousal. I haven’t played too many games like that because a lot of horror games wind up trading environmental tension for monster fights. A good horror game makes you feel vulnerable, keeping a close eye on your inventory because you might well run out of supplies at any time. The environment is dark and oppressive, the sound design ratchets up the scares long before you encounter any nightmare creatures. My favorite horror games–Dead Space 2, Silent Hill 2, and Fatal Frame 2 all have these features in spades, and actual combat is often a calculated risk (less so in Dead Space, with its RE4-esque gunplay).
I’ve found a new title to add to my list–SIGNALIS, from developer rose-engine, is one of the most oppressive, spooky games I’ve played in a very long time and if you’re a horror game buff (Halloween is right around the corner), this is about as safe a bet as you can make.
This is the story of an android, Elster, who awakens after her ship crash-lands on a snowy planet. She’s soon off and searching for her missing crewmate and comes upon a mining station also run by androids. “Replikas,” as they’re called here, provide much of the workforce of the nameless fascist empire made up of an alliance of Terran countries (Japanese, German, and possibly Russian) which has conquered the stars. But something has gone wrong here–much of the Replika workforce has been corrupted by some unknown pathogen, causing them to mutate into mindless killing machines. Like the Crimson Head zombies in Resident Evil, many of them will resurrect after a certain amount of time unless their bodies are burned with rare thermite charges.
Elster is not helpless, acquiring various firearms in the course of her search like a pistol, shotgun, and magnum. Ammo, as you might expect, is at a premium, so you’ll have to make hard choices while exploring each sublevel of the derelict mining facility, especially as Elster’s inventory is limited to six slots. With keys and components being so common, you won’t have room for everything all the time. Thankfully, there’s a storage box in every save room.
In between avoiding murderous robots, you’ll collect notes and instruction manuals (which are always fascinating to read) and solve various puzzles. The puzzles may be my favorite parts of SIGNALIS thanks to their bulky, analog construction: in one early instance, you’re asked to modify the length of a key’s individual teeth to fit cleanly into a lock. In another, you’ll have to balance the proportion of gasses in an incinerator. Trial and error is encouraged and always takes a little bit of time to understand the interface and what the goal is, but the real joy is watching big, awkward-looking buttons depress with a hard click, or pulling levers to activate some internal machine. Even wall safes feature large push buttons and turning locking mechanisms.
Another puzzle feature is the radio module. Within the first couple areas, Elster finds a radio module which allows her to scan a frequency band listening for signals but also to see streaming data display–this data often corresponds to codes throughout the facility. You can also turn the radio on to a specific frequency and then leave the inventory menu, allowing the radio to play while Elster is walking around. Sometimes this activates a lock, other times it disables monster-based visual static within an area.
Occasionally, Elster will experience a memory (or is it?) in first-person. Here, you’ll often be searching a completely different area–or time period–usually ending after you find an item or see a specific event. These sequences are jarring but always interesting and tense. The game’s relatively rare cutscenes, combined with the first-person scenes and overall gameplay, make you question what’s actually going on, and that constantly motivated me forward.
The real star of SIGNALIS, though, is undoubtedly the mining facility itself. It feels at all times like a real, incredibly creepy place. You could remove all of the mutants and it would still feel claustrophobic, dilapidated, and dark. One gets the idea that the facility was barely functioning at the best of times, held together with glue and popsicle sticks. Broken doors, malfunctioning machines, flooded basements, and more speak to a lack of oversight, personnel, and resources. Despite that, propaganda posters dot every wall, rules are strictly enforced even when such rules are detrimental, and notes reference employees being punished for the slightest misdeeds. Cameras still follow Elster in many rooms. Even if nobody’s on the other end now, there used to be. The pathogen may have been this facility’s version of the Chicxulub impact: it may have killed the dinosaurs, but the environmental degradation was causing a slow death long before.
On a technical level, the game’s graphical style–a sort of homage to PSOne horror games–is especially effective. Be sure to turn the CRT filter on–it feels like you’re on the other end of those facility cameras, and gives a fuzzy, imprecise view of Elster and the facility she haunts. The sound design is similarly brilliant, usually consisting of lowkey ambient noise that occasionally gives way to sudden intrusions of music or the blood-curdling screams of corrupted androids out for blood (hemolymph?).
I can’t really think of too many problems with the game. There was the occasional puzzle or cipher that vexed me, but coming back later with fresh eyes often solved the problem. Combat isn’t particularly intuitive–aiming is a somewhat imprecise affair, but that reinforces Elster’s vulnerability. With some enemies, you have to be a surprisingly exact distance away to land a shot, but in those instances, context kind of justifies it. Any issues I have with the game are wiped full away by the experience of actually playing it. The one thing I genuinely didn’t care for was constantly going into the map screen. As the facility’s sub-floors became more labyrinthine, I found myself wishing for a mini-map, although I understand that having a perpetually-displaying mini-map would break the immersion.
Turn the lights down and the sound up. Play this game on your TV, late at night. SIGNALIS is a wonderful, mind-bending experience and the passion of the developers can be seen in every pixel.