James Stephanie Sterling
Signalis - Shattered Memories (Review)
Signalis Released: October 27, 2022 Developer: Rose-Engine Publisher: Humble Games Systems: PC, PS4, Switch (reviewed), Xbox One/XS
Retraux survival horror games are, by and large, terrible. Unlike the mountain of similarly inspired first-person shooter games, the subgenre of horror titles emulating classic PSX frighteners contains significantly fewer positive examples.
Misconceptions about the success of Silent Hill and Resident Evil have led to years of people claiming they were scary because of their poor movement controls and ineffective combat. While these limitations could certainly make the experience more tense, they also made things incredibly frustrating, and there’s a reason both Silent Hill and Resident Evil improved these elements as soon as they could.
The likes of Vaccine and Back in 1995 are a result of misunderstanding the games they’re trying to replicate. Awful cameras, terrible movement, and a bevy of monsters too busy being infuriating to actually scare anyone. I adore survival horror, but I’ve never been impressed by any contemporary homages to the classics. They usually nail the aesthetic but go too far in emphasizing such games’ weakest aspects.
Having now used the introductory portion of this review to platform my personal grievances, allow me to present the latest retro-inspired survival horror, Signalis. It’s like the games I just mentioned, but slightly better!
Already critically acclaimed, Signalis is certainly among the more successful PSX style horror games thanks largely to controls that actually work and simple but effective combat. However, it suffers from significant flaws that frequently get in the way of what could have been a truly brilliant production.
Signalis’ narrative is… vague. You start with very little direct information, instead piecing the general plot together from information dribbled throughout the campaign. Before too long you figure out the protagonist Elster is a Replika - a cybernetic humanoid created to labor under a dystopian galactic government. Elster is searching for her partner, an administrative unit known as a Gestalt. After crashing her ship, Elster stumbles into a world gone very, very wrong, and continues to search for her partner while dealing with an increasingly horrifying threat.
The story beats are at times exasperating in their thinness but there’s a great job done of world building. Through diary entries and documents, Signalis’ background plot detailing a totalitarian regime, the history of the Replika and Gestalt workforce, and what went wrong at a gore-filled mining facility, is effectively evocative without going into too much detail.
I did find the ending unsatisfying - brief and inconclusive as it was - and while there are several finales to uncover, I can’t say I’ve any major desire to play through again to find them. In a fun nod to Silent Hill, these endings are influenced by how you play - whether you took much damage, killed a lot of enemies, etcetera. It’s a neat touch, but due to some large caveats, getting through the game once was enough for me.
Signalis boasts a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and uses its PSX aesthetic to great effect. Enemies and environments are just detailed enough to spark the imagination, with the most common creatures in particular using their low poly appearances to unnerve - they’re recognizably humanoid, but the grey visages and obfuscated facial features make them look just plain wrong.
The monsters - former work units corrupted by a mysterious sickness - are skin crawlingly ghoulish. The way they stagger around, the blood curdling shrieks they make, the fact they won’t stay dead unless they’re burned, these corrupted laborers are horrific. Their appearances are consistently threatening and never to be taken lightly.
While the in-game graphics are terrific in their authenticity, the artwork used for cutscenes is less edifying, resembling rather amateur anime drawings. In fact, I was initially put off trying the game altogether thanks to the cover art.
Fighting monsters isn’t a terribly clunky ordeal, which is a nice change of pace for the subgenre. Aiming your gun at a monster will draw a targeting line directly to it with a square that closes in on its body to visualize how effective the attack will be. If you can’t hit what you’re aiming at, a helpful “X” marker will let you know. Enemies usually drop in a few shots and will need to be kicked when they’re down to finish them a’la Silent Hill. Unless burned with a thermite item, enemies have a tendency to pop back up eventually, though you’ll usually incapacitate them just long enough to significantly reduce danger for a good chunk of time.
I said that fighting wasn’t terribly clunky. That’s not to say there’s a complete lack of clunk. For one thing, it can be quite hard to navigate around monsters if you’re trying to save on ammunition (or have none to spare in the first place). While Elster moves more fluidly and directly than many survival horror protagonists, she’s not particularly speedy and her turning motions have some extra swing to them that can make tight spaces more dangerous than they otherwise would be. Monster attacks can close distances surprisingly quickly and there’s little outside of an occasional push animation to stop them if they decide to block your way. This is made worse by the fact that at times they’ll wait for you right outside a door, ambushing with a rather unfair cheap shot as soon as you enter a room.
The targeting system also has an unhelpful tendency to snap onto enemies and stay there. When fighting multiple foes, Elster will regularly aim her gun at threats further away than ones literally in front of her face, and it can be a nightmare to rip her aim off the wrong spot.
Signalis’ biggest issue is, by far, a miserably restricted inventory that limits Elster to carrying a mere six items at a time. In a game where you’re expected to endlessly ferry puzzle items and keys around, you’re forever faced with the prospect of backtracking to safe rooms and dumping things into the storage container. Absolutely everything - crucial quest items, tools, weapons, ammo, medical kits - takes up a slot to the point of ridiculousness. The simple flashlight shouldn’t take up inventory space, especially when it’s equipped and literally worn by the protagonist. It’s honestly fucking stupid, both in and out of the game’s universe.
It got to the point where I started leaving shit on the floor rather than pick it up and risk my ability to grab something important. The prospect of fighting my way through a dangerous area, picking up too much stuff before reaching a key item, and then having to backtrack to a safe room, meant I outright wrote off certain things like stun batons and autoinjectors - helpful pieces of equipment that I just didn’t use enough to justify retrieving. Even then, I still found myself accidentally filling my inventory before finding something I needed for progression.
The developer has addressed this complaint publicly and they’re apparently working on resolving the situation to make it less of a hassle while still retaining the “challenge.” I put challenge in quotes both because it’s the word they used and because calling the inventory challenging is something I’d only do sarcastically. The idea that such a pathetic carrying capacity is in any way “challenging” is flat out wrong. It doesn’t make the game harder or offer a problem that’s satisfying to overcome. It’s fucking annoying, and forcing the player into tedious backtracking is just that - tedious. It doesn’t test my skill, it only tests my patience. It makes exploring and progressing more laborious than it has to be, and consequently makes me not want to play again.
Signalis’ other major issue likely won’t be a problem for neurotypical people but offers a significant barrier to someone like me who has a memory disorder. A vast number of puzzles in Signalis are just memory games - you regularly have to remember codes, patterns, and step-by-step instructions to solve various challenges. There’s often very little puzzling outside of memorization, and with my ADHD absolutely murdering my working memory, I had to resort to guides or taking pictures of the screen with my phone. Hardly an elegant workaround, but it did work. I’ve been made aware that many other players used their phones while playing Signalis for this very reason.
There’s actually an in-game camera for just such a purpose, but you can bet your ass it takes up a fucking inventory slot if you want to use it. In any case, my memory can be so bad that navigating to the camera’s menu and back to the puzzle risks me losing retention when I could just have my phone open in my lap and get the solution at a glance. Without access to a phone, the solution to some of these puzzles is to simply not have a disability.
Fundamentally, Signalis is an accomplished emulation of PSX survival horror. Its graphics are both authentic to the era and perfectly disturbing. Taking place in a fascinating world and populated by threatening creatures, it’s a game I very much wish I could enjoy more than I did. The crushing limitation on the player’s inventory coupled with a reliance on memory puzzles that represent a genuine accessibility issue put me off wanting to ever play the game again to get an ending more satisfying than the rather unfulfilling conclusion I got. That’s a real shame, because it’s still one of the best retraux survival horrors out there. It’s just not good enough for me to love it like I want to.