I’ve been keeping tabs on this title for a long time now. Ever since I saw the description of ‘classic survival horror experience’ in the game’s announcement trailer, it had only taken about 5 seconds until I’d involuntarily wishlisted the game on Steam. Anime, horror and sci-fi… that’s the holy trifecta right there! Can it get better than that? I honestly don’t know. But does this game do those three categories justice? And what’s with all the German lingo? Are they just trying to sound cool or something? Well, let’s find out.
Like Tears in The Rain
If there’s one thing this game does exceptionally well, it’d have to be a strong sense of intrigue. Signalis puts players into the shoes of Elster, a humanoid replika technician who’s in charge of maintenance onboard a planet colonisation ship. One day, said ship happens to crash-land into a desolate, snow-covered planet, which forces Elster to search for her missing co-pilot in a creepy, derelict facility. She soon encounters other replikas that have been brought back to life with fresh coats of glossy, dark horror aesthetics and memories of her time on this same remote planet that she’s never ever been to.
In all seriousness, it’s not easy to hook an audience for the entirety of a movie, let alone a 15-hour cosmic horror game. But Signalis does this really well by trickling out breadcrumbs of story segments and collectable notes in that timeless Resident Evil fashion. Even though the main conflict isn’t as fleshed out as it could be—since some parts are left a little too vague and there is a lot of sci-fi existentialist woo-woo—it’ll still keep players interested right up till the end. The PS1, anime-themed cutscenes and classical music pieces like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata further amplify the game’s hauntingly unique atmosphere. Funnily enough, certain world-building elements that probably didn’t need as much exposition seem to hog the spotlight more than the main narrative itself. Since I tend to view these components as the cherry on top, not the actual cake. Albeit, if you are a big lore nut, then you will have a field day with this one.
In case you were wondering why there are several German phrases announced or splashed across the screen, it’s because the developers, Rose-Engine are based in Hamburg. They’re not just shamelessly spamming umlauts everywhere like the famous rock band, Mötley Crüe to “look European”. Now, I’m sure it won’t have the same effect on native German speakers as those from other parts of the world, but there’s something inherently enigmatic and disturbing about a robotic voice repeating “Achtung! Achtung! Achtung!” and other German phrases in an abandoned building. Am I the only one? I don’t know. Although there were times when I felt compelled to recheck my capture footage and Google Translate these words into English just for funsies.
A Neatly Packed Presentation
The good thing is, you won’t have to screenshot most of the game’s hints for puzzle solutions, as each document or collectable is readily accessible from the pause menu. This makes the act of solving these brainteasers much easier since you don’t have to run around like a headless chook saying “Where the heck did I leave that stupid note?!” for the 4,000th time. Such a relief. The puzzles themselves follow that tried and true survival horror format, and they’re constructed so perfectly in terms of challenge that you always feel the need to pat yourself on the back when they’re completed. There were times when I thought “Have the developers forgotten to include a crucial piece of information here?” But no. It was just me being a massive stooge and not noticing the one mighty subtle detail that would unravel the whole mystery.
Speaking of mysteries, one thing about survival horror games with a status health bar is that it’s often difficult to infer when the player character’s about to flop over. Signalis makes this super easy, barely an inconvenience, by having the screen shake and distort, as well as flashing a distinct visual cue for when Elster’s next hit will be fatal, which is… well, very convenient. It’s also really great how storage boxes categorise each item into distinct groups. Because you can only carry 6 things at a time—which does get frustrating—you will find yourself returning to the save area for item swaps quite often. Therefore, having this system in place saves tonnes more time and energy in the long run, especially since there are no inventory expansions. Ink ribbons aren’t a thing in this game either, so definitely save as often as you can. The game even shows off a funny “you’ll regret this later” gag if you don’t. I love it.
Signalis does have one big problem though, at least on the PC version I played—the interact command. The one critical button you’ll press hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times throughout the game. You know when you’re organising your inventory in survival horrors, how you’re supposed to anticipate the most likely scenarios you’ll come across and plan accordingly? Well, in Signalis, I was 10 times more scared about fumbling into a finicky door or item situation, than I was about the actual replika monstrosities themselves. Especially since most interactions are done in real-time, hard mode just makes it even worse. I mean, if the intention was to turn me into a bumbling nervous wreck, then they definitely achieved their goal. Although, I severely doubt that’s what they were going for.
Fighting Through The Shadows
In terms of the survival gameplay itself, it’s pretty straightforward: save resources, fight when necessary and don’t take too much damage. You know the drill. There is a big emphasis on sneaking around enemies and avoiding confrontation whenever possible, which is quite satisfying. But at the same time, I also found it a bit too easy to simply run past replikas or push them out of the way to make an escape. This approach works well for about 75% of the game but does start to wane towards the end, as the enemies grow stronger and tend to gather in tighter areas. Once the shield-based foes start appearing though, they become a particularly localised pain in the rear.
Not that these enemies are badly designed or anything. It’s just that if you don’t have an appropriate tool equipped like the stun rod or armour-piercing bullets to deal with them, then they can become a major hindrance. As slipping past them isn’t always an option. It also highlights how the aiming and secondary weapon controls can be pretty clumsy at times. Not to the same extent as the interact button, however. Although there were a few times where I’d intentionally try and aim at a specific replika, only for the target reticle to fall asleep and not function properly, which would, of course, lead to more needless damage. It is fun how Elster needs to stamp on enemies to incapacitate them—with limited incendiaries needed to polish them off—but again, this stamp action uses the interact button. So just be prepared to constantly button-mash every time you need to interact with something on the move.
Apart from the occasional boss who’ll be absolutely curb-stomped on the first attempt, Signalis periodically switches up the gameplay to keep things fresh. Sometimes Elster will have to explore her surroundings in a first-person perspective, or dial in frequencies on her radio to find hidden items and deal with twitchy, glitched-out replikas. These sequences usually trigger the more scripted sections of Signalis, resulting in unique scares and moments that’ll really throw you for a loop—and more often than not—fling Elster right across the map. On a related note, I did appreciate how easy the map was to read and the way it labels important information to the player. For example, if a door can be unlocked, it’ll be highlighted yellow. Or if there’s an object that needs interacting with, the game will mark what it is so you won’t forget. There’s even a CRT display mode for those who love swimming in the nostalgia pool, enveloping monitors with that signature scanline look. Albeit, it seems as if you can’t turn on the old-school 4:3 pillarbox effect at the same time as CRT mode. As when you change the resolution down, the pixel scale won’t be high enough to properly function, which is unfortunate. I mean, you could definitely force your monitor to 4:3, though I don’t want you guys to void your warranty, okay?
If you’ve been holding out for a classic survival horror experience reminiscent of the PS1 days, then this game should definitely be in your Halloween plans for 2022. Signalis features some challenging puzzles and tension-filled, close-quarters gameplay, wrapped up in a sci-fi and anime-inspired package. The narrative itself contains some incredibly vague moments and the plot does lay on the existentialism thick, however the core storyline will keep players invested in Elster’s plight. Apart from a few gameplay hiccups here and there, Signalis is easily one of the stand-out horror titles of the year.
By Anthony Culinas – Reviewed on PC
Signalis wears it’s survival horror badge proudly, with only a couple of gameplay and item-related issues that hold it back from nirvana. The anime and retro-styled presentation are a marvel to witness, and the story will definitely keep audiences intrigued. However, the narrative can seem a bit hazy at times and the focus is often placed on the sci-fi-themed lore of Signalis, rather than Elster’s personal journey. But if you can look past these concerns, this 15-hour trek through dark, desolate locales and eldritch-looking monstrosities is more than worth taking the plunge.
This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Plan of Attack. The Beta Network uses affiliate partnerships, however, this does not influence reviews or any other content published. The Beta Network may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links that are on the website.