by Polly

It was only a matter of time until the indie scene reached the PlayStation/N64 era of nostalgia-based revivalism. Just as most of the indie scene from the mid-2000s to the late 2010s grew up with 8 and 16-bit consoles inspiring their work, it makes sense that the folks that cut their teeth on 32-bit consoles and later would base their creativity on those experiences. A Hat in Time, Anodyne 2 and the recently released Pseudoregalia all feature gameplay and aesthetics heavily inspired by the era, but are cut with modern quality of life improvements and the natural evolution that comes from years of improvement in game design sensibilities and technology.

While the games above largely focus more on 3D platforming and exploration, there's also definitely been an uptick in recent years of modern horror games cribbing from the PSX aesthetic to good measure. A quick trip to will land you a treasure trove of the best and the worst. Hell, Bloodborne got the complete 32-bit treatment, so I think we can comfortably say the time for PSX-flavored love has more than arrived. rose-engine's Signalis takes a stab at bringing another genre to the party that was innovated and flourished heavily during that era: survival horror.

Signalis chiefly takes its inspirations from the first two Silent Hill entries. From how it plays, the emotionally raw nature of its story, a portable radio device you carry around, all the way down to little visual and audio touches that are there specifically to evoke those games. The only thing really missing is the fog, and they've even got their own analog for that. That's not to say doesn't have its own identity, because it clearly does, but for better, and sometimes worse, rose-engine REALLY want you to be thinking "Silent Hill 2" while playing their game.

The game opens with our main character, Elster, who is a state-of-the-art LSTR combat android (also known as a "Replika" hmm hmm hmmmmm...), receiving a message to "Wake up." She runs some very slick and stylistic looking diagnostics, emerges from her maintenance pod, and is then left to her own devices to explore the small two-person space faring vessel she's just awakened on.

Finding no signs of life, she eventually makes her way to the airlock and emerges, only to find a completely iced-over world she can barely navigate due to snowblindness. Eventually, she arrives at a large looming hole in the ground with stairs leading down to an even smaller hole she crawls through to end up at the start of her journey into discovering the secrets held within both the world and herself.

The world of Signalis is bleak, and that's not just because of the emptiness of the game's world or the dark aesthetics. Presented mostly through various text logs, propaganda posters and flyers, and scraps of notes you'll find in the enviroments, we're given the very clear image of a hugely authoritarian society where the idea of a unique self-image, expression, and art are all frowned upon and stifled. People are forced to live their lives in service of "the greater good," be that through serving in wars, being forced into mining work in hellish conditions on remote planets, and aimless attempts at intergalactic travel from which they will likely never return.

We start the game knowing very little about Elster other than she's looking for someone depicted in a photograph she's carrying, and the phrase, "Remember our promise," resonating loudly in her mind throughout the game's runtime. Similarly, there are other folks still milling about the near-deserted and desolate environs with their own intentions and goals, and though Elster has limited interaction with most of them, their stories are important to the overall fabric of the narrative and getting across the desperation of the world and what's really happening with reality. From here, the game's story unwinds itself slowly and in a more immediate and personal manner, fracturing and distorting into a sci-fi phychological horror hellride with a bloody, gooey warm center that's existentially terrifying, but also beautifully melancholy and touching.

Though I did end up enjoying the game's story quite a bit, I think the writing can be a bit too quiet and noncommittal to certain details. And while this can sometimes make understanding key parts of the narrative a bit more difficult than needed, there's still a very strong emotional core at the center that will easily pull you in.

Less enjoyed was the implementation of Silent Hill 2's multiple ending system. How the game judges what ending you get is based on your gameplay and performance, but the ending you might get could feel entirely incongrouous with how you approached your playthrough.

If you play the game like most of us play survival horror games (carefully and conservatively), the ending you might get is hugely unsatisfying, and at worst feels like a slap in the face to both Elster's character and the player. There are better endings you can get for playing "worse," but the system on the whole feels unnecessary, convoluted, and misses the point of what Silent Hill 2 was doing with its gameplay-based endings.

The lack of a clear explanation for certain story events and characters coupled with the ending I initially got did stick in my craw enough to get me to replay the entire game again, so maybe this was their plan all along. I did come away from my second playthrough with a better ending and feeling more confident in my interpretation of the more nebulous points of Signalis' story (though there's still some big ol blanks I couldn't explain to ya.).

Signalis' presentation has a slick and clean faux 32-bit aesthetic with just the right amount of configurable filtering and shaders to get across both its retro nostalgia as well as the dingy and broken down static'ey CRT vibes that it needs to flourish. Each and every room is lavishly detailed, and every piece of the world looks and feels abandoned, in some state of disrepair, or run down. Even from the top-down perspective, the identity of the world and each area of the game comes through brilliantly, and the meticulously placed lighting effects really sell you on the moment-to-moment drama and tension you want in this type of game.

The visual presentation during cutscenes also makes extensive use of quick slides or flashing instances of Chinese characters and German phrases to emphasize the narrative or the mood that a scene is going for. If you have any affinity for the more introspective psychological portions of Neon Genesis Evangelion then, like me, you'll absolutely love this. That said, unless you're fluent or look these up, they can end up feeling random, and their meaning and tone get lost. There are no subtitles to help aid in these moments of visual flair, which I feel would have helped certain parts of the story or specific scenes land more, given the context they can provide or their enhancement of the story's more somber moments. Not a game breaker, but since the narrative can be somewhat difficult to follow, I think a little more context would have helped.

Enemy designs unfortunately fall a bit flat and aren't particularly all that terrifying, which is a real bummer in a survival horror game. Even with the intentionally low fidelity of their models and textures, they never quite feel like anything you should be afraid of, and come off more as human-shaped things you're supposed to avoid in a videogame.

The soundtrack and sound design are very clearly aiming to evoke Akira Yamaoka's work. The soundscapes are seemingly minimal, but are actually quite dense with atmsophere and ambiance. Cutscenes and quiet moments are often accentuated by gorgeous piano pieces with just a dab of fuzz, and the high-tension combat themes feature just the right amount of static, clanging, and detuned notes and noises that definitely pull weight where the monster designs can't. Top marks also go to the use of analog radio, which is a major part of the game's theming. All the various whines, squeals, and oddities you'll hear from it only add more flavor to what's already a fantastic audio package.

Through and through, Signalis is boilerplate survival horror. There's no real surprises here (and you can even enable tank controls for REAL authenticity if you feel like it.)

You run room to room, avoiding enemies, sparing as many resources as you can, and solve various environmental and logic puzzles. The game does get bogged down a couple times with you just chasing keys for doors, but there's also a good number of truly impressive and clever puzzles for you to figure out, some of which have randomized solutions per playthrough. I especially enjoyed the puzzles involving use of the radio since it's so intrinsically tied to the world's identity.

Combat is pretty run of the mill and feels about like you'd expect in this type of game, mostly in that you probably don't want to be doing much of it since ammo supplies are pretty tight (though there's definitely no shortage of healing). Every individual enemy has variable health, which means you'll need to be flexible with your resource management in case you have a bad encounter. Similar to the Resident Evil remake, enemies can also revive after a brief period of time, though you'll be given a pretty limited resource at some point to help keep your more frequently visited areas clean of the baddies for good.

There's also a number of really smart quality of life options you can enable which help with aiming (by placing it solely on the right stick) as well as making interacting with your radio much more intuitive. I highly recommend using both. My only suggestion would be that if you want an experience that has some teeth to it to put the combat difficulty on Survival, as I found Elster to be a bit too tanky even on Normal mode.

The way Signalis tries to recreate that feeling of classic survival horror is admirable. The developers very clearly love Silent Hill 2 to pieces (and for good reason). For what it is, gameplay-wise Signalis does a fine job representing and paying homage to the genre and it's an easy recommend for survival horror buffs. In my opinion, it's the distorted and fractured presentation and story that are the true stand out stars of Signalis, however. Though it's set in a world nearly devoid of life and is running even shorter on the local supply of hope, the existentially twisted story it tells is still incredibly affecting and hauntingly beautiful.

SMPS Discord | Twitter | Submissions and Contact | GB | Store | i | cmps | v3
Contributor Central
© 2005-2023 smps/*-|):D