Several people say survival horror has been dead for a long time or laying dormant until giants such as Resident Evil or Dead Space resuscitated it with its new and upcoming remakes and sequels. To that, I say; you could not be any more wrong. The genre has always been there, evolving like a horrendous but fantastic monster waiting for you to get close enough to catch you. Maybe it was absent in AAA games, but it has always been there still, given life by smaller teams and the indie community. Signalis is the latest proof that classic survival horror is and will always be alive.
In Signalis, you play as a technician Replika, an android, waking up on a broken spaceship that has landed near a mining station on a desolate planet. Upon discovering that your crew has mysteriously vanished, leaving you alone, you begin your descent into the depths of this planet, slowly finding out what befell the people inside the mines and your own team.
If you’ve ever wondered what a game that combined Alien (1979) and the classic trilogy of Resident Evil could be, then you have to wonder no more. Signalis is that game, not only in concept but in every facet of its design. Its lonely and cold industrial environments with retro-futuristic technology resembling Ridley Scott’s masterpiece mix with the stumbling infected and mechanics of the survival horror franchise that made the genre what it had been for decades now, to create something unique.
The fact that you’re an android is used not simply to remind you of animes like Ghost in the Shell but to amp up the very particular feeling of cosmic tech horror. As much as we humans are a part of the dirt we walk in, you as a Replika are, in essence, a part of the metallic walls and abandoned technology that surrounds you (although there is a very clear agency in your actions that go beyond what you were made for). Cutscenes give you the sense of an artificial intelligence crashing, leaving you lost in a sea of corrupt data, especially in the intro. Every time you start up a computer to save your progress, a red light shines out of it and invades the screen with a slight scream that highlights the awesome sound design. It gives the setting a very upsetting personality and life of its own.
The game plays in a very similar way to Resident Evil. You go back and forth between puzzles, searching for ways to further your progress, sometimes even changing from the top-down third-person view to a first-person view with point-and-click controls when the game wants you to interact with a room and puzzles in a specific way. From the very beginning, it’s clear that that iconic aspect of the genre was not left behind. You also have the, likely more important, inventory management; you’ll have the typical objects that will help you solve puzzles along with combat equipment such as your gun, tools to fight enemies in melee, and ammunition. The safe rooms with storage and the ability to save your game at any time will provide a bit of relief in that regard. You even have the very much appreciated notes scattered around the place, sometimes with information about the lore behind this universe, and other times simple, intimate records of someone leaving their story behind before everything crashed and burned. That’s when the similarities end, though.
Instead of fixed cameras or even shoulder cameras, Signalis goes for a top-down view. With the amount of space this allows you to witness, always being aware of your surroundings from any angle, you would think it would thwart the horror. However, the rooms and walls you walk around in tend either so that tight you worry about not being able to run away safely from enemies or are shrouded in darkness so that you have to even make sure there are enemies with you, counting them one by one until you realize you might be over your head.
Combat is also different. You can use melee attacks with stun batons and weapons of the sort, but they clearly are meant to be the last resource as they are not as helpful as your firearm. But the gun comes with its difficulty as well, of course. To shoot an enemy, you must aim at them and wait a fraction of time until your aim adjusts, increasing your accuracy the more you wait. In a way, this also becomes a time management game as you learn to calculate how much it will take your enemies to reach you and when you should take your shot. When presented with multiple infected, the game basically demands you to increase your precision and plan your attacks to avoid getting hurt. There is an alternative, though, and that is the classic running and avoiding enemies. If you want to save as much ammo as possible, which you probably will if you’re playing a game like this, being able to do this is priceless, though tense and risky.
Signalis is not without its flaws, of course. The Metroidvania elements can be a bit affected by the easiness of getting lost, as sometimes it feels that the maps are not as methodical as in other survival horror games, which can lead to a little frustration. It is also unclear at times which objects you are able to interact with when entering a room. And despite the game not feeling like just another Resident Evil clone at all, it would have been nice to see other new mechanics that made further distinction from other games in the genre, although it is understandable that there is a very clear set of blueprints so iconically defined in regards of gameplay that it would be difficult to disrupt. In the end, these flaws do not diminish all the good of the game.
Signalis is an experience that feels like a must-buy for survival horror fans and a great entry point into the genre for new players. From the very beginning, it sets a path for the player that, despite its clear influences, feels unique, immersing you in a world that invites you to dive into the unknown and analyze the themes ingrained in every step of the way.