Signalis is a survival-horror offering from developer rose-engine and publisher Humble Games. It combines the design and concepts from old-school franchises that veteran players will remember, as well as crafty puzzles to please those who like a challenge.
This is rose-engine’s debut effort, and it’s easy to say that the studio knocked it out of the park. However, there are still a few notable quirks that can mar your experience.
Repli-can or repli-can’t
Signalis stars Elster, a Replika unit (i.e., Replicant or android) in search of her partner. What follows is a harrowing romp deep below a frozen planet’s surface, where Elster meets other Replika creations and malformed monstrosities.
From the story alone, one can think of Souls-like similarities, primarily due to the cryptic and downright mind-boggling plot, to the aura of mystery that surrounds this locale. And, even then, you’ll also notice several cinematics, often with a distinct anime feel to them. There are scenes where a character would grin, followed by rapid-fire bold and bloody text, then a quick cut to someone opening their eye, and another obscure clue or perplexing statement. There were times when I found the plot hard to follow, though I remained mystified due to the presentation.
From a quick glance, Signalis can be considered a throwback to survival-horror games of yore. PlayStation-era classics such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill come to mind, as well as those with an action-oriented flair, like Dino Crisis and Fear Effect. Moreover, the pixel graphics and clean HUD add to the immersion in keeping with the design and theme.
Elster doesn’t have a traditional health bar, instead using a status panel to show her health condition. Similarly, inventory is extremely limited, as you’re only able to carry six items at any given time. Lug around too much, and you won’t be able to pick up additional ammo, first aid kits, keycards, or other contraptions. That’s when you’d head back to the nearest safe room, with its own save point and container/storage chest.
In terms of navigation and levels, though, Signalis has more in common with old-school games with a fixed top-down lateral perspective. Think of how a character moves from one hallway to the next, or from one end of the room to the other, with the camera at a consistent fixed angle — that’s what you can expect here. The camera angle doesn’t necessarily shift just because you turned left along a corridor or you entered a new room. There are some exceptions, of course, and these are stupendous moments that I’ll explain in a while.
They keep coming back
Combat also follows these concepts, albeit in simplified form. Aim at the general direction of enemies, watch that crosshair line up, and blast foes to bits with your pistol, shotgun, submachine gun, rifle, and so on. If enemies are still twitching, give them a good kick in the noggin. However, this is only temporary, as monsters will still get back up after some time passes unless you burn their corpses. As such, given the limited ammo and inventory size, backtracking will lead to fight-or-flight instances.
This partly makes Signalis an absolutely thrilling and terrifying romp. You know you need to reach a particular room to grab an item or open a lock. But, if ghouls are coming back to life, you’d have to run like hell or risk expending all your ammunition.
Unfortunately, it also becomes rather dull later on in the game. With constant backtracking and your character’s sluggish sprint speed, self-reviving enemies become a cheap trick that you’re accustomed to. The scares can be somewhat limited in a way, as these creatures don’t chase you outside of their own rooms/cells.
Signalis manages to capture a tense and foreboding atmosphere because of the above. Moving through cramped corridors tends to create just a few seconds where you’re swearing under your breath, or calling on the name of a deity, just so you could finally have a breather.
The sense of claustrophobia and loneliness in a ransacked facility is further bolstered by chilling music and sound effects, including a radio that can be tuned to different frequencies. Imagine toggling the radio on, only to hear anything from crackling static to the semblance of laughter… while you’re alone. And, lest I forget, even the sound effects if you decide to save the game (or not) can be quite unnerving.
Moreover, some instances are akin to eerie, dream-like states. One moment, you’re walking down a path with the same fixed camera, top-down view. The next, it shifts into first-person view, whereupon you might need to gather clues or solve a puzzle. Then, once you’re done, it’s back to normalcy. I wondered if androids do dream of electric sheep — as though what’s happening to Elster is just a by-product of a corrupted memory — or if it’s the reality that she’s living in.
Speaking of puzzles, Signalis has a lot of these. As with self-reviving hostiles, this can turn into a factor that you’d get accustomed to as you progress. In one level, you have to collect keycards. In the next, you’d need plates. Then, after that, you’d look for tarot cards.
On the bright side, you’re not just collecting MacGuffins for the hell of it. Rather, some of these important items (or the way to reach them) have puzzles of their own.
The types of puzzles vary, from adjusting the voltage of a generator to tuning a radio to accomplish various tasks. If you love brain teasers from the days of Myst to the more recent Inscryption, then you’re going to enjoy Signalis.
A damned good debut
So, what exactly is Signalis? True, it’s a survival-horror game where you often need to think of limited resources to make it out alive. It borrows heavily from tried-and-tested concepts that made franchises successful in the past. Its story, however, is decidedly ambiguous and cryptic, with cutscenes that are stylish, and downright confusing to boot.
It’s also heavy on puzzles, where the ideas of backtracking and collecting dozens of items are intertwined with nifty and unique solutions. Best of all, it throws curveballs to surprise you just when you think you’ve seen it all. While the aforementioned flaws do exist, rose-engine still managed to deliver an impressive debut offering.