Nothing sums up the artful, near-pretentious confidence of Signalis better than how some players are going to miss its final act and they won’t realise. I won’t go into spoilers, but this retro-futuristic survival horror game—which plays like an art-house cinema mashup of classic Resident Evil, classic Metal Gear Solid, and the ever under-appreciated Eternal Darkness—has a fake out ending. This design choice is bold, assertive, and a little strange, a trio of adjectives which represent the game well.
WHAT ANDROIDS DREAM
The first wave of my enthusiasm towards Signalis peaked during the impressively confident first hour and a half. From the menu screen, with its cathode-ray-tube visuals and clacking sound of its slowly-revealing text, to the opening screens of the game itself, with their ominous, deep-space electronic ambiance, the brooding feel of a horror overture is effectively evoked. Your character wakes up alone. You’re an android—a Replika—on a two-person spaceship that has crashed landed on a snowy planet. Your human crewmate has disappeared, and you set off to find her. From that point on I was never completely sure what was going on in the story. Narrative clarity isn’t the priority here, though the developers (rose-engine) include plenty of world-building through readable reports and information gleaned from 80s future-styled computer readouts to keep things intriguing.
The game sometimes deviates from the bird’s-eye perspective that inspired the classic Metal Gear Solid comparison, switching instead to first-person close ups of computer consoles, cockpits, and exteriors. These moments are often mesmerising—the slow zoom into a computer console, the bloom and fuzziness of the reticule you use to interact with things, the slow tilt of the camera. I enjoyed these transitions and their subtle influence on the game’s pacing. And I enjoyed observing the accompanying and delightful details in the sound and the visuals—the computer screens and their carefully crafted displays, the shelves of books, the cockpit dashboard, the exterior shots of the stark planet-scapes, and the intercut anime-styled character closeups. I was so distracted by all this cinematic confidence that I was often caught by surprise by the game’s next inventive move. I’d go as far as saying the opening is spellbinding.
Puzzle-Focussed Resident Evil in Space
Signalis aims for the sky and hits a very impressive ceiling. When you consider that the game was made by just two people—rose-engine are Berlin-based Yuri Stern and Barbara Wittman—their achievement is quite stunning. Gameplay-wise the original Resident Evil games are a clear influence, though the controls here are more forgiving (a tank-mode is also available). Manoeuvring the Replika through the environments feels very ‘Resident Evil’ down to the small details, like the way, due to bullet conservation, you’ll often end up avoiding and running around enemies (deteriorating, demonic-horror ex-robots). There is the same emphasis on managing sparse resources and carrying space. Healing is similar. You collect Resident-Evil-style, absurdly-named keys.
More uniquely, the puzzles often require actual notetaking, and one in particular even required a little time on a search engine. This rarely felt ‘too much’. On the contrary, this kind of old-school puzzling helped draw me into the atmospheric world and was a huge highlight. Some of the puzzles wouldn’t be out of place in an escape room, and they help to give Signalis even more of its own admirable personality. The Replika has the ability to transmit and receive radio signals, a mechanic used either to solve puzzles or to explode the heads of the more frenzied enemies. As the initial surprise of the game’s opening moments matures into something else, it is this cerebral puzzle-solving side to Signalis that comes to the fore as the game’s most memorable feature, with combat a close and enjoyable second.
The attention to detail in the graphics and the soundscapes makes exploration a pleasure. Each room is full of lovingly, and carefully-crafted details—from taped-up boxes, to rotating fans with little ribbons of paper flitting in the airflow. It sounds like a small thing, nothing to get excited about, but I really enjoyed this carefully observed world building. Your character passes through bands of often-sparse lighting and casts shadows over the walkways, further helping this all-encompassing sonic and visual immersion. The Switch version runs the game like a dream—the spaceship you wake up in, and the strange underground compound where most of the game takes place, are, down to each individual pixelated screen, executed to perfection.
You navigate these grim, bleak, beautifully-rendered environments with the aid of a map, carefully managing your meagre six item spaces as you go. Some players will find this carrying limitation frustrating. Swapping your collection of items between the character and the Resident-Evil-style storage boxes can be a challenge. You have to carefully balance items: objects needed to progress the story, health patches, ammo boxes, guns, stun batons and flares used to take out close-quarter enemies. It is frustrating in a good way—challenging. Managing your items becomes the game’s own meta puzzle, and part of the inherent tension of the experience is trying to make sure you have enough firepower to see you through areas without using up precious space for the really important stuff, the fragments of keys, or floppy disks, and so on, that unlock new areas.
Signalis’s fake-out ending comes after the game’s middle section, which is the game’s grimmest and least enjoyable area. That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s not. It’s disorientating—it leaves you without a map for an extended period of time. It’s odd—you will be completely clueless about what’s going on. And it’s even a little overly bloody and gross. This bleak moment in the game’s overall experience was not a satisfying place to end things. Seen as one part of the whole, however, it adds variety, and ensures that the final ‘secret’ act feels fresh—nothing feels tired or overused.
The ‘fake out’ happened after seven hours, but there were three more hours to go, bringing the whole experience to just over ten hours. Overall, the storytelling might be a little opaque, but Signalis is executed with such hellish confidence and features so much fun and tense gameplay, that it squeezes itself into the very top slot: the Thumb Culture Platinum Award.
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.
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