March 22, 2023
Review |  'Signalis' is a clever throwback to old-school survival horror

Review | ‘Signalis’ is a clever throwback to old-school survival horror


Available on: PC, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch

Developer: rose-engine | Editor: Humble games, GAME

This review contains spoilers for “Signalis”.

“You will be able to dream yourself into the world of dark shadows.”

In 1880, the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin promised this to Marie Berna, who had requested a monument from her late husband. Berna wanted something “to dream”. Böcklin, in turn, painted the second version of “The Isle of the Dead”, a strange seascape in which a small boat carries two indistinct travelers – a woman and an upright sculptural figure, or possibly a coffin – towards a small island. Dramatic and desolate, the lands of the island are a crush of cypresses, tombs and darkness. Böcklin eventually painted six versions of this image, as if seized by his own sorcery.

“Isle of the Dead” has since grabbed countless others. This provided, for example, the title and setting for a 1945 Val Lewton horror film, in which a paranoid Boris Karloff speaks gravely of an eldritch force infiltrating human minds at night. Now, in its latest migration, Böcklin Island has resurfaced in “Signalis,” a new sci-fi horror and survival video game that’s also set apart with anime-inspired character designs and… lo-fi visuals reminiscent of the graphics of the first PlayStation console.

In one of the game’s collection notes, a columnist sketched the board; he fears it will attack his mind. Later in the game, many variants of “Isle of the Dead” flourish in a quick Kubrick-esque edit, where they sit alongside glimpses of “The Shore of Oblivion”, another ghostly image, created by the painter German landscape artist Eugen Bracht. . At all times in the game, Böcklin’s Island represents a threshold to another world – the doorway to the afterlife or waking life. After all, “Signalis” proposes that existence is evoked in a dream. But as David Lynch – another of the game’s inspirations – asked himself: “Who is the dreamer?”

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Consider a more manageable question: who is the protagonist of “Signalis?” That would be Elster, a moody android, or Ship Technician Replika, depending on the game’s jargon-laden script. Up”. Blink and you’ll miss other oracular transmissions, like German dialogue spliced ​​into cutscenes, or red-soaked visions of white-haired wraiths. The missing things – peers, memories, meanings – are crucial to the game’s incredibly oblique storytelling style.

Elster emerges from his cryostasis capsule. She’s framed by the game’s top-to-bottom third-person camera. The initial setting: a crashed spaceship, where Elster had apparently assisted human (or Gestalt) pilot Ariane Yeong, who is nowhere to be found. Ariane and Elster are employed by the Eusan Nation, an interplanetary, totalitarian government with a sinister rap sheet. Eusan’s regime orchestrates brutal interrogations, wages war on other nations, and imposes absurd points of decorum.

In a dreamlike leap, everything changes. Elster now stands amidst the brutalist architecture of S-23 Sierpinski, a shadow-strewn installation on the planet Leng. The facility, run by the Eusan Nation, includes a labor camp, rehabilitation program and underground mining. The odyssey proper begins here – or, given the game’s nods to inescapable cycles, begins again.

The player directs Elster through S-23’s many claustrophobic rooms and corridors, which are overrun with knife-wielding Replikas and other infected enemies. Elster can hit these fast attackers with stun batons, or otherwise take them down, as long as the player stabilizes the red laser sight quickly. If death seems imminent, Elster can try to escape to another room, but hobbling forward with his arm cradling his torso, like all great survival horror heroes.

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After an enemy goes down, Elster can still twist with a quick kick. Still, they’ll eventually rise again unless you set their corpses on fire with a flare, a nod to Resident Evil’s Crimson Head enemies. When an enemy is thus slain, Elster can watch over the fuchsia-tinged sparks. It’s a macabre respite from the lackluster interiors of the S-23, but a respite nonetheless. In “Signalis”, everything counts in small quantities. We accumulate resources, however rare they may be, but also visual pleasures.

“Something has been dug up,” announces a deliberately glitchy line in the cutscene text, which alludes to cosmic horror. Obviously, something else has also come to light: the sensibilities of old school survival horror. Elster avails itself of security chambers; according to genre conventions, they have a strict no-zombie policy. Although “Signalis” does not save progress automatically, you can do so manually in these rooms. The player can also enable tank controls via an optional setting.

Likewise, chests found in save rooms are familiar. Items can be stored there, or otherwise retrieved and inserted into Elster’s arsenal, which can only hold six items at a time. “Signalis” meditates at length on dreams, but its greatest fascinations are these nostalgic qualities. For some players, the game will recall the happy days of playing the original PS1 version of “Resident Evil 2” in the late 90s, or even its miraculously faithful replica on the Nintendo 64.

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“Signalis” is itself a kind of faithful replica, a sidekick in the grip of an old – and supposedly archaic – master. But the game finds the classic survival horror genre healthy. Survival horror is always compelling in part because it turns bugs into features (and man – or machine – into zombies). Action franchises like “Uncharted” thrive on fluidity and can’t tolerate a lot of sluggishness; Survival horror makes clumsiness a virtue. If players struggle with the laser sight or clumsily manage their inventory slots, great.

It boils down to an atmosphere that is both blurry and precise. One thinks of Jerry Seinfeld trying to describe the enduring appeal of riding in horse-drawn taxis: “People love it. There’s something about the clip-clop, clip-clop. Survival horror, too, is about irrational affinities. It’s a genre driven by semi-redundant descriptive messages. (“An old-fashioned lamp sits on the table” is one of Elster’s contextual observations.) In this way, ordinary objects are accorded the dignity of museum plaques.

Convoluted puzzles are another indispensable ingredient. At some point, Elster has to slip rings on the fingers of a deceased empress, reminiscent of those adorable “Wait, What Do I?” tasks from the old “Resident Evil” games. Plus, there’s something about the hero’s footsteps – or in this case, the stilt noises, as Elster’s design forgoes the humanoid feet – and labyrinths, dead and inhabited spaces, the clamor of doors.

In the end, the story of “Signalis” isn’t as thrilling as those flavor and gameplay facets, but the narrative experimentation is refreshing, as is the sci-fi weirdness of the game. of S-23 explain that a disease was raised from the mines of the facility. (This represents the “zombies” of the game). Players learn that Replikas are based on neural data derived from humans; the infection rocks the sediment, so to speak, pulling residual traces of that data. Infected Gestalts disappear quickly. Replikas degenerate physically and mentally. In other words, the android staff of S-23 has been wiped out by a contagious existential crisis.

“The red eye beyond the door showed me,” reads the journal of patient zero, a high-ranking Replika at S-23. “I feel like my mind has been contaminated, tainted by another person’s memory.”

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On a dry thematic level, the catastrophe of S-23 functions as a satire of oppressive modes of governance. The Eusan regime’s attempt to rewrite the minds and bodies of their citizens has backfired spectacularly. The disaster is also reminiscent of Elster’s radio module, which the player uses to tune into different frequencies to generate data, interact with facility gadgets, and generally help solve puzzles. But this module doesn’t explain the stray signals in the cutscenes, in which Elster witnesses fragments of Gestalt lives and faint signs of a flesh-bound dreamer. What’s really going on? “Signalis” asks players to find out for themselves. In theory, that sounds nice. But in practice, the game’s storytelling bits are insufficient for the task, at least on a first playthrough.

By engaging in the opaque and contradictory surfaces of history, one can struggle, try to reach this or that hypothesis. But if the game wants to go crazy, let’s go crazy. Perhaps Ariane is somehow adrift in her own dream, in which her subconscious taps into the tyranny of Eusan’s regime and Ariane’s personal torments, which are sketched in notes and cutscenes. Elster may be a dream invention after all, a conduit for Ariane’s vague psychic baggage, while Ariane may herself be subject to dreams of a less discernible entity (“the red eye beyond the door”). Either way, Elster and Ariane seem to be searching for each other, and looking for some mystical escape, a way to get rid of their dismal surroundings. They do not wish to die, but they yearn to see beyond the veil, and finally respond to a dimly perceived awakening.

MD Rodrigues is a freelance writer based in Canada. He has also written for the Hedgehog Review, the Los Angeles Times, the Economist’s Prospero blog and other outlets.

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