Signalis, a new sci-fi survival horror game from developer rose-engine (aka Barbara Wittmann and Yuri Stern), opens with an excerpt of the final line from H.P. Lovecraft’s 1925 short story “The Festival”:
Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.
As far as epigraphs go, it’s a pretty apt one considering that, over the course of the dozen or so hours it will take to complete the game, you’ll be crawling through quite a few dark, cramped, inhospitable spaces populated by horrors that should have never learned to walk, let alone have existed in the first place.
Players assume the role of Elster, a “Replika” android on a reconnaissance mission aboard a small spaceship who awakes from hypersleep after crash-landing on a remote, snowy planet. With no memory of what has transpired, Elster ventures into the depths of an abandoned underground facility in search of answers and her lost companion. What she finds, however, is a murderous host of zombified androids shambling about and hunting survivors, their bodies seemingly corrupted by some errant alien signal.
A self-described love letter to the golden era of survival horror, Signalis is a third-person horror shooter with top-down, fixed camera angles and interactive puzzles similar to the early Resident Evil games. During important story moments, the game will occasionally switch to a first-person perspective à la Silent Hill 4: The Room, where players will navigate through fugue-like interactive dream sequences to recover important items and solve puzzles.
The plot is explicitly sinister; conveyed less through spoken dialogue than it is through moody imagery, somber music, and environmental storytelling. Themes of identity, abuse, trauma, and suicide abound throughout the game’s duration, creating an oppressive and evocative atmosphere that gestures toward answers all while challenging players to put the pieces together themselves. While the game’s oblique storytelling leaves some of the finer details of the relationship between its secondary characters and Elster a bit difficult to parse, the broader emotional stakes of her personal arc ultimately land to devastating effect.
Signalis’ aesthetic draws liberally from anime and manga like Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, Tsutomu Nihei’s Blame!, and Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film Ghost in the Shell. It’s also stylistically reminiscent of director Tatsuya Oishi’s work on the Kizumonogatari trilogy, what with its usage of fast-cut intertitle cards during cutscenes that combine superimposed Japanese kanji text with ominous German phrases. While these elements may be jarring at first, they eventually settle over time into a visual language that is as acutely strange as it is thoroughly engrossing.
The universe of Signalis revolves around a fascistic, space-faring civilization with a Eurasian retro sci-fi bent that rules over every facet of its citizens’ lives with ruthless precision. This totalitarianism extends as far as the game’s inventory system, restricting the players to carrying up to only six objects at a time in accordance with the empire’s “Rule of Six” protocol. In reality, though, it’s just a clever in-universe way of lampshading the game’s deference to the design principles of its forebears. That same DNA is also evident in another defining aspect of the game’s design: its difficulty.
Early combat encounters are a breeze; you scavenge for ammunition and mow down slow-moving adversaries with your trusty laser-sighted weapons. Sometimes, you throw in a healthy stomp for good measure. It’s not until approximately five or so hours in, however, that the challenges ramp up. Fallen enemies will randomly recover from fatal injuries if their bodies aren’t incinerated with either thermite torches or flare gun rounds, adding another element of tension and uncertainty to the game when you find yourself low on ammunition.
With a limited amount of ammo in each level of the complex, you’ll have to be judicious with where or when you choose to spend your bullets and health items. Killing a lone enemy now may mean putting yourself at the mercy of a horde of enemies later, and excessively spamming your health packs might mean putting yourself close to the edge of death for long durations of one’s playtime.
But even this is nothing compared to the precipitously steep difficulty curve of the game’s puzzles. The first dozen or so are easy enough to solve through intuition and close observation (or simple, brute-force guesswork). But, around the same point at which the enemies begin to revive themselves, the late-game puzzles begin to require an almost pinpoint recall of the most seemingly inconspicuous details in the various documents and posters strewn across the complex.
Often this leads to, in true Resident Evil throwback fashion, an exhausting amount of backtracking, something that’s especially prevalent in the final third of the game, and throttles the momentum of what would have otherwise been an adrenaline-pumping race to the finish. There was one puzzle in particular that I only managed to solve because I had the good fortune of having taken a bunch of screenshots via the Steam overlay during my playthrough. Fortunately for those not playing on Steam, Signalis features its own handy in-game screenshot feature in the form of an equippable “eidetic module” that can record a total of up to six pictures at a time.
Another important element introduced partway through the game, one which informs not only the game’s combat and puzzle mechanics but also thematically brings these modes of gameplay into alignment, is a radio module which allows the player to listen in on specific sound frequencies. Certain enemies are able to distort the player’s field of vision, causing a flood of static noise and visual artifacting to obscure the heads-up display. The only way to fight back is to tune one’s radio to the same frequency emitted by these creatures (the precise number flashes momentarily on the screen upon entering an area), triggering a feedback loop that incapacitates them.
Whether it’s the high pitch of a radio signal or the low growl of an android zombie, Signalis’ sound design is impeccable. And so too is its music. Co-composers 1000 Eyes and Cicada Sirens weave together a plaintive and occasionally abrasive score that easily complements such classic arrangements as Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Combined with the eerie postindustrial sci-fi setting, both the sound design and the music create an atmospheric and immersive experience that draws the player in.
Signalis is a game that asks you to repeatedly plunge yourself into the abyss and face what meets you there. Those willing to look beyond its occasional nagging pain points and homage-laden surface will find a surprisingly intimate take on cosmic horror, one which beckons the player to consider, again and again and again, the question of what truly makes a person who they are, and just how far are they willing to go to keep a promise to a friend.
Signalis will be released on Oct. 27 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox One and Xbox Series X via Game Pass. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Humble Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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