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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Humble Games
Developer: rose-engine
Release Date: Oct. 27, 2022


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PC Review - 'Signalis'

by Cody Medellin on April 5, 2023 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Signalis is a classic survival horror experience with a unique aesthetic, full of melancholic mystery.

Sci-fi and horror are a combination that works well, and this is especially true with the survival-horror genre that started in the mid-1990s. From the more action-based gameplay of Dead Space to the unsettling nature of Soma, crafting terrible situations out of scientific elements has proven to be fertile ground for genuine scares. Signalis continues the tradition of sci-fi horror in games in a more intriguing way.

In Signalis, players take on the role of Elster, an android from the Replika line that is often paired up with humans to balance the workload. As the co-pilot of a scouting ship, you wake up from hibernation to find that your ship has crashed in a place that is suffering from an intense snowstorm. You also find that your friend and ship's pilot has gone missing. Unable to repair the ship, you leave it and go to a nearby mining facility that seems abandoned. It doesn't take long to find that isn't the case, and it becomes a race against time to find the whereabouts of your friend before things get worse.

The narrative becomes more unclear as the game progresses. The moment you get into the mining facility, Signalis bombards you with garbled radio messages. Memories start to play and twist while your perspective changes. Time jumps are common, as are questions about what's real and what's a programmed illusion. Quotes tell of something terrible that's about to happen, while the game shows endings only to take them back. The whole thing takes more than a few pages from the classic Eternal Darkness by producing more questions than answers by the end.

Players aren't going to be too put off by this type of storytelling given how fleshed out the world is. The incidental lore scattered throughout the facility gives you a good deal of history about the world and the warring governments. The mixed use of German, Chinese and Japanese languages gives the game an alternate future vibe, as does the mix of technological advances in the setting. The future may be filled with Replikas, but there's heavy use of monochromatic monitors with text-only PC interfaces. It's a fascinating world that you'll want to spend more time exploring.

Despite the top-down perspective, Signalis plays out like many of the survival-horror games it's inspired by but with a more palatable control scheme. The combat is classic, where you need to stop and aim to hurt something. Aiming is generally automatic, but you'll need to tilt up or down to go for legs or heads. Enemy Replikas can die if you make the effort to dispose of them properly; normal attacks only disable them temporarily. Ammo is a precious resource, so you'll find that the technique of trying to dodge enemies and running past them works better than engaging in a fight. The game has a health meter, but you're better off reading your character's actions as an indicator of their health. Getting low on health is ill-advised, since it means you'll move much slower and become more susceptible to enemy attacks.

Saving the game can only be done in certain rooms, where you can also stash items that don't fit in your inventory. That feeling of limited power is what made some of the early genre games such classics, and the title feels like an homage to that rather than a copy. It feels true to those past games since you need to be conscious of all of your attacks, no matter how tempting it may be to try a shiny new weapon on what amounts to cannon fodder with non-boss fights.

The puzzles are often a mainstay for the genre, and there's a good balance between sensible solutions and obtuse stuff. The game barely provides any hints unless you are diligent about looking at every journal and looking at every detail of objects that you pick up. It's a game where you often use the screenshot feature to take notes, and the game encourages players to avoid combat except when it's absolutely necessary.

The only real complaint that one can levy against Signalis has to do with the inventory system. The limited number of items that you can carry on your person and the need to store everything else in chests within a safe room hearkens back to classic survival-horror games. However, at a paltry six slots, it feels more restrictive than the older games, and it ensures more backtracking than necessary. Some of the puzzles require you to shuttle back and forth often just to bring over the items. A change to increase that slot number even by a little bit would've done wonders to alleviate that sense of repetition without diminishing the tension that the mechanic is trying to accomplish.

The presentation is very well done when you accept how low-fi it wants to be. The textures are pixelated but not to the point that it looks muddy. The character and enemy models don't sport a load of polygons, and there's no effort to smooth things out with anti-aliasing, but the animations are fluid. The use of lighting to produce a moodier setting makes these aesthetic choices blend in well, almost as if you're playing a long-lost classic version and not something new. The audio soundtrack is minimalist,  so the few tunes are mostly there to occasionally break up the silence. The sound effects comprise most of your soundtrack; the enemy screams, gunshots and low environmental hum are clear enough to provide an overwhelming sense of dread.

Steam Deck users will find that Signalis works quite nicely on the device. The game runs at a smooth 60fps with only a few drops in first-person mode when the effects, like the blinding snowstorm, kick in at full force. The battery life fluctuates wildly, but you can eke out about four hours from a full charge. It never gets so intense that the fan kicks in at full speed, so the portable experience is pleasant.

Signalis is the type of horror game that keeps you hooked from beginning to its true end. The story is told in a confusing way, but the delivery succeeds in keeping you intrigued enough to see its conclusion. Sparse inventory management aside, it achieves a nice balance between puzzles and combat, and even if you figure out that flight is a more formidable strategy than fight, the overall tension and sense of unease remains. For horror fans who want the feel of a bygone classic, Signalis is worth checking out.

Score: 8.5/10

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