One of the worst things about becoming at least reasonably clued in to any particular medium is that you begin to recognise the patterns and tropes between titles. No longer do you approach every film/book/game with wide eyed optimism but instead with a leery cynicism as you point out every single thing that has been done previously.
Of course, sometimes this sort of thing is just made a bit too easy for you and such is the case with Syndrome, a new indie horror by Camel101 in conjunction with Bigmoon Entertainment (the company behind Lichdom Battlemage).
The game begins with your character, with the most ridiculously macho video-game name of TRENT GALEN, waking up from cryo-sleep on board the spaceship Valkenburg. Following the introduction you find that a military team commandeered the civilian vessel in order to transport some unknown artifact back to somewhere (Earth?) as fast as humanly possible. Thus, as is the way of the horror genre, it comes as no surprise that the ship has no power and all the crew are missing (and indeed, if you read ANY of the computer terminals you’ll know that the ship is registering them as dead).
From minute one the tropes fly hard and fast. There’s the whole blatantly outrageous situation of “small military group escorting a mysterious artifact on an ordinary civilian ship full of normal people”. Honestly, even forgetting the silliness of it all, seeing as how the idea never worked in any other story so obviously it’d have to work this time. There’s also the standard horror trope of our character having memory loss, which really is getting a little overdone these days. We explore the ship in silence at first and then finally we start receiving instructions from a mysterious character over the radio.
The first thing one notices when jumping in to Syndrome is that it looks pretty awesome. Everything looks sleek and overall just pretty impressive from a graphical standpoint. The ship has an undeniably creepy feel and the bodies you find along the way only enhance that. Admittedly one does wonder if the ship was ever NOT creepy, even before all the supernatural nonsense, but we can brush past that. There are a few aspects which are not quite perfect, just small details here and there, but for the most part the aesthetic aspect of Syndrome is likely its most polished.
The atmosphere is actually undeniably tense. It’s usually almost completely silent, so any noises which break the silence are things like your own heartbeat, or when you bump into a box and scare the shit out of yourself. This is something of a nice change in a way, where many horror games like to throw in little startling or spooky sounds, such as steam escaping or engines grinding, the near-silence (marred only by the occasional distant hum of power) is every bit as effective at keeping you on edge, and rather harder to maintain as it requires a certain sort of patience.
Meanwhile, as you sneak around the opening sections of the game, tensed up and on edge, slowly making progress through your first tasks, you may start noticing that all is not well in this world. And when I say that, I’m not talking about the spaceship or its inhabitants. No, that was always going to be a given. No, I’m talking about issues with the game itself.
First out the gate is the voice-acting. It’s a rather unusual complaint given how often voice-acting gets brushed over in reviews, but hear me out. Most of the time voice acting is inoffensive and is just another aspect to help tell the story of a game. Occasionally you will find yourself noticing a particularly good character when the voice acting is exceptional, and sometimes one particular voice will be a little grating, but for the most part I think it’s fair to say that as far as content goes, the voices are usually not a particularly noticeable thing.
Not so in Syndrome. The voice acting of the game may well be some of the worst I have EVER heard, full stop. The emotions displayed by the voices over the radio and from Trent are halfway between “very first acting lesson ever” and “utterly emotionally stunted piece of wood”.
Of course this is not at all helped by the absolutely horrendous writing of the dialogue. There was a reason I described the game as falling into a number of familiar patterns and that reason is that the writing in general is just not very good, and this is seen nowhere more keenly than in the dialogue. It’s so stilted and awkward, sounding nothing like real conversation between two people. Even had the delivery been absolutely exceptional it probably wouldn’t have been able to rescue how dire it is.
This might seem unnecessarily harsh, but when I was streaming it, some of the very first comments made about the game were “it looks pretty”, “Seb you suck” and “Jesus the voice acting is dreadful”. So, it really is not just me!
This is not the sole reason, but it adds to the fact that from the perspective of story, the game does not do a particularly good job of engaging you, which can be a real killer for a horror game where immersion is all important.
The combat of the game is also a bit wonky and surprisingly reminiscent of Cry of Fear (which was also fucking shoddy). The game does have guns, but the ammo is limited and rare (at least at first), so the main method of fighting is via the use of a large melee weapon. The difficulty of the combat though is that the enemies you fight deal considerably more damage than you do, so you need to time your movements so that you dart backwards when they swing and then sprint forward to attack while they recover.
Unfortunately, it’s NOT a particularly well designed system (much like it wasn’t in Cry of Fear). The enemy recovers fast enough that ANY time you get close enough to swing at them, they will invariably hit you back as well. Also, Trent only just moves fast enough to avoid attacks (plus you have to be holding sprint in order for this to be the case, so your fingers have to be spread-eagled across the keyboard constantly during a fight) which means that you invariably get hit on the back-step as well. This means that inevitably most melee fights turn into a slugging match, which always results in you losing most of your health.
The enemy attack patterns can be unpredictable, so timing the jumping in and out can be an exercise in frustration. Last but not least, for some reason there is a block function, but it’s completely fucking useless. Not only does the block actually not really seem to block any damage, but also Trent raises his crowbar/tool thing so slowly that you have to be preparing to block a good few seconds before the monster is even thinking of hitting you, which makes it impossible to utilise effectively in the middle of a fight. Trent raises it too slowly to block incoming attacks and then lowers it slowly enough that any advantage you would gain even if it COULD block is nullified by the fact that the enemy is already attacking again by the time you want to capitalise on it.
Thankfully it’s not all a complete bust, with some aspects of the game of significantly higher quality, even if that isn’t particularly difficult given how terrible these aspects are. For example the game’s pacing is pretty on-point. While it may utilise standards like the scripted event of “monster walks past hallway in the distance” there’s no denying its effectiveness. I spent the early sections of the game feeling increasingly tense and found myself jumping at the smallest sound I was wound so tightly.
However, even saying that, while the pacing itself was pretty good (divided up into sneaky bit, quiet bit, action bit), said pacing occurs across a bloody irritating map. The devs seemed to want to try and introduce a sort of exploration/Metroidvania aspect to the game, encouraging exploration and getting loot. However, none of it was as organic as the natural “opening up” of a map in a Metroidvania game. Instead you are simply railroaded back and forth through areas you have already traversed, to a quite insane degree.
As an example of the sort of thing you encounter: you’ll be told that you need to start an engine on deck X, so you go to the elevator and travel up to deck X, where you are told that actually you need to start the fuel pump first on deck Y, so you go back to the elevator down to deck Y and engage the fuel pump. This feels slightly par for the course, a bit of back and forth across the levels, nothing too bad. Anyway, you go back up to deck X, only to then be told that actually you also need to reactivate the engine shields on deck Y, so you trudge back to deck Y, then need to reactive the power on deck Z in order to go back to deck Y to turn the shields on so you can finally turn on the engine on deck X.
By this point you have went back and forth across the same couple of maps a dozen times each and are getting exceptionally fed up with it. Regardless of how spooky the game is, of how tense the appearances of the monsters are as they do starting coming, you just get irritated with the sheer amount of backtracking that’s necessary.
This is also compounded by a map which feels oddly difficult and unclear to read. I’ve used denser and busier maps in other games, but this one in particular just felt that little bit harder to utilise. Perhaps it’s because you can’t interact with it?
Other issues for the game include that monster AI and animations can be a bit wonky, with their movement seeming to about as fake as the voice-work and their actions are equally inconsistent (both of these tying in to the aforementioned irritating combat).
Also, whenever there is any contact with someone via radio, the “profile pictures” that displays on the HUD for the people contacting you are so awful it’s genuinely hilarious. The faces, rather reminiscent of old-school Bioware-face (circa Jade Empire era), are so completely out-of-place in a game where everything else looks rather noticeably good.
Then there are other mechanical irritations. Such as: crouch not being a toggle, with no option to change this either. In fact there is no way to change or even look at any of the key-bindings, and the amount of settings you are given for the game is frankly laughable.
Now, thus far, I’ve actually been skirting around one very important question. Perhaps THE most important question for a game like this: is it scary? And the simple answer is: yes, yes it damned well is. It is tense, full of creepy imagery (and let me tell you, the use of the powered-down, vaguely anthropomorphic androids scattered about, was absolutely inspired given how often they freaked my fucking balls off), tense stillness and silence followed by intense sections of pretty terrifying monsters.
And this is perhaps the biggest disappointment of the whole game. Had it simply not been scary then the game would be a write-off and not worth anyone’s time, but the fact is that it CAN be scary. The word “can” being important. Because it is only scary when you are not irritated with it, when you are not bored with the backtracking or combat, when you are not feeling overly removed from the experience by the terrible voice-acting and character images. When you actually are given time to slowly sneak past enemies (real or imagined) from one place to another, then the game actually shines.
The fact that the monsters are so undeniably creepy helps this a fair bit as well. Despite slightly wonky animation and actually not quite having the same outstanding graphical design as the rest of the game, they are genuinely eerie to behold and do a pretty great job of inspiring terror in the people they are hunting. At first…
Then after you get killed the fifth time because of some minor mishap you start just trying to run and dodge the monsters instead of taking the time to sneak past them. You start seeing them more as juddering irritations in your path instead of the potentially scary creatures they could have been.
Overall it’s just a shame really that the game is plagued by so many mechanical difficulties and annoyances. The monsters are imaginative, the environment and atmosphere is creepy and tense, and there are occasionally moments which are just genuinely scary. It’s just that those moments of proper fear are interspersed with far too much annoyance for me to really recommend it.
Transparency disclaimer – We graciously received a review code of Syndrome from the developers.