Signalis review: PS1 survival horror fans, rejoice

Signalis review: PS1 survival horror fans, rejoice

As Replika Elster, Signalis will force you to untangle a mess of twisted flesh and faulty memories to separate dream from lived experience. So, in line with dream logic: You’ve played Signalis before, and you’ve never played anything like it. It lovingly embraces the attributes of PS1-era survival horror, and more importantly, it fully understands why those systems, aesthetics, tropes, and technical limitations are so engaging. But it also presents and explores love and loss, freedom and manipulation, fear and trauma, in its own cruelly compelling way. It is strange and familiar, beautiful and terrible. It’s an absolute firecracker of a video game, made all the more impressive by its most Indian price tag and two-person development team.

Basically, it is a love story. Things are not going well for the space technician Elster, but she made a promise that she intends to keep. We will return to this later. First up: Signalis excels at capturing the essence of survival horror – those equal feelings of possibility and anxiety that thrust you into a long corridor, flanked by doors, only to find all but two locked or malfunctioning. You’ll be back here soon, you know that. Probably with a new key. Maybe with a new gun. But there’s also a good chance things will have changed by then. A floor tile can reveal new horrors. You may have spent your last bullet. So left or right? Or maybe back? After all, you can only carry six items.

Let’s talk about that inventory. Rose-Engine, the team behind Signalis (did I mention it’s two people! Two!), has already said they’ll be adding an option to ease inventory restrictions, and it’s on point. But personally, this limitation – and all the planning, backtracking and glorious, glorious stress it caused me – gives Signalis so much of its character and bite that I can’t imagine playing without it. The game consists of interconnected, shortcut-loaded spaces. Navigating them safely can feel like a puzzle in itself, and backtracking brings their designs to life. I can absolutely respect – and anticipate – that some see this as an artificial extension of game time, so hold off on the patch if that’s you. Me? I spent last Halloween lamenting the lack of this in modern survival horror on these very pages, so I was obviously so ecstatic to discover Signalis encroaching on my lawn that I immediately spat my Monster Energy all over my Metallica shirt.

Full embrace of the wonderfully tense potential of early ’90s genre conventions, but you’d be hard-pressed to call Signalis dusty or dated in other areas. The occasional unnecessary button press through a menu aside, it really goes the extra mile to make things as smooth as possible, so you can save all the negative feelings for the things that are actually meant to make you feel like crap. I’ll be the first to admit that ’90s survival horror fans – and games – can sometimes fetishize the wrong kind of friction, and thankfully Signalis knows what to hold on to and what to throw out of the airlock as so much dead weight.

So, there are storage boxes and save rooms (complete with tinkly, blinky piano), but no color ribbons or other limited save items (although I wouldn’t say no to an extra difficulty added to these). Elster moves omnidirectionally and smoothly, and there’s even a tank control option for self-hating idiots. Weapons have auto or free aim, choose your poison. There is no stamina system, so Elster can run forever, but will begin to limp and stagger when damaged. The maps are also good. Doors are coded to show which ones you’ve used, or are broken, or need keys, and those you haven’t yet tried are grayed out. It all helps immensely with navigation, without completely giving away secrets like Resi 2 Remake’s slightly too transparent “You already have everything” indicator. Item descriptions have your back, too, often telling you exactly which floor a key’s corresponding room sits on.

Early on Elster will find a radio and tuning into different frequencies will be the catalyst for some great puzzles and story moments and some even creepier stuff that I won’t spoil

However, being faithful to the classics does not mean that Signalis does not have some fresh twists. Early on, Elster will find a radio and tuning into different frequencies becomes the catalyst for some great puzzles and story moments, and some even creepier stuff that I won’t spoil. Just when familiarity starts to become comforting, something STRANGE will happen, like the last lockbox in a chain of keys and places that doesn’t contain the final keycard, but an older portal to somewhere else…elsewhere. It’s also decidedly campy, opting for dirty, unsettling vibes and emotional trauma.

Now, Signalis still can’t resist some cheese, as a treat. Exit a console without saving, and you’ll get a “You’ll regret it later” warning. But it trades murky mansions for Cold War concrete, snaking flesh cladding and inner chaos. It’s much more on Silent Hill 2’s wavelength in these regards.

Good puzzle too. It’s not enough to collect everything, you also want to read everything. I even took notes, scribbled horrible crap on a missed delivery card, then giggled to myself as I imagined handing it in to a bewildered receptionist at the big post office. So while I think Signalis works best as classic survival horror, non-fans can happily wait for the inventory patch, dial down the difficulty, and you’ve got yourself an atmospheric puzzler with a captivating look and story. There are many, many tactile doodads and screens to play with, recreating the adventure game feel of the pre-Resi era. Alone in the Dark if Edward Carnby renounced academia, shaved off his mustache and escaped to become a hot android in an interstellar eternal war.

As I see it, the main thing holding Signalis back from (I’ll say it, hold your faces) perfection is the lack of enemy variety, and more generally, the lack of panic-filled set-pieces that this bleeds into. There are absolute moments when bad things appear where there were no bad things before. It even borrows Resi 1 Remake/The Evil Within’s corpse burning – dead uns can come back to life unless you use a limited item to incinerate them, making every walk past a previously defeated enemy tense. The weapons are thick, especially the shotgun. There is a gun that you can burn things with. You use tasers like nu-Resis knives. You can sneak past enemies. There’s even a propaganda poster extolling the evils of running in corridors, leading to you sneaking. Love it. But there are very few dog corridors – instances where completely unknown enemies appear for the first time, in tight confines, and you have absolutely no idea what they are capable of. If you’re going to stand and fight, or if you’re going to scramble to the nearest safe room and cry. I like this a lot. Signalis rarely does that.

The sound of me grabbing is over. Here’s some much nicer noise: Signali’s soundtrack. Tuned keys and classical piano. Rattling offensive warnings. Off-kilter audio interference, obviously engineered by someone who exclusively dreams nightmares about malfunctioning 90s modems. It is filled with music that elevates emptiness to loneliness, loneliness to horror, and horror to tragedy. The same anarchic, future-retro sound design extends to visual noise as well. From its themes, to its codec-like puzzles, to its visual tricks, there’s more than a whiff of a more reserved Kojima about things. A Kojima who likes to stay in the background, let’s say, and keeps his disturbances subtle. Fourth wall break that takes the other three, the ceiling and the roof, but does it smoothly and quietly like a canvas trick. It is up to you to decide which frequencies to filter out and which to build a working map of Elster’s reality from.

You’ll first open a copy of The King in Yellow during Signalis’ first hour, so Signalis makes no secret that its horror turns cosmic, not just psychological. But it’s a subtle, pernicious use of cosmic horror that doesn’t overplay its hand, using that genre’s immense sense of mystery without any of its nihilism. In fact, it is the knowledge that something beautiful and real existed for Elster that makes Signali’s horror and tragedy so effective. I tend to be a bit more system focused, but Sam Greer wrote a damn fine piece on Eurogamer if you want to read more about Signalis as a wonderful piece of art.

As I understood the story, it satisfied me, but it also made me 100% ready to watch an hour-long video essay on what I missed. But poems can move you like textures of language, ideas and images, even if you don’t fully understand their meaning, and Signalis definitely hit me right in the feels. If you have any affection for PS1 survival horror, queer android love stories, Cold War paranoia aesthetics, retrofuturism, or cosmic horror when people who aren’t Lovecraft do much more interesting things with it, Signalis is a must.

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