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Signalis review: PS1 survival horror fans, rejoice

Do androids dream of eclectic meats?

As Replika Elster, Signalis will force you to untangle a mess of writhing flesh and malfunctioning memories to separate dream from lived experience. So, in keeping with dream logic: You’ve played Signalis before, and you’ve never played anything like it. It lovingly adopts the trappings of PS1-era survival horror, and more importantly, it fully understands why those systems, aesthetics, tropes, and technical limits are so engaging. But it also presents and explores love and loss, freedom and manipulation, fear and trauma, in its own cruelly captivating way. It’s strange and familiar, gorgeous and horrible. It’s an absolute banger of a videogame, made all the more impressive by its indiest of indies price tag and two-person dev team.

Fundamentally, it's a love story. Things go bad for space technician Elster, but she made a promise she intends to keep. We’ll get back to this later. First up: Signalis excels at capturing the essence of survival horror - those juxtaposed feelings of possibility and unease that hit you entering a long hallway, flanked by doors, only to find all but two locked or malfunctioning. You’ll be back here soon enough, you know that. Probably with a new key. Maybe with a new gun. But there’s also a good chance things will have…changed, by then. A floor tile might reveal new horrors. You might have spent your last bullet. So, left or right? Or maybe back? You can only carry six items, after all.

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Let's talk about that inventory. Rose-Engine, the team behind Signalis (did I mention it’s two people! Two!), have already said they’ll patch in an option to ease up on the inventory limitations, and that’s swell. But personally, this limitation - and all the planning, backtracking, and lovely, lovely stress it caused me - gives Signalis so much of its character and bite that I can’t imagine playing without it. The game is made of interconnected, shortcut-laden spaces. Navigating them safely can feel like a puzzle in itself, and the backtracking makes their design come alive. I can absolutely respect - and anticipate - some folks seeing this as artificially extending playtime, so hold out for the patch if that’s you. Me? I spent last Halloween old-man griping about the lack of this in modern survival horror in these very pages, so I obviously got so ecstatic to discover Signalis trespassing on my lawn that I immediately spat my Monster energy all over my Metallica shirt.

Hearty embracing of the wonderfully tense potential of early 90’s genre conventions aside, though, you’d have a hard time calling Signalis dusty or antiquated in other areas. The occasional unnecessary button press through a menu aside, it really does go the extra mile to make things as smooth as possible, letting you save all those negative feelings for the stuff that’s actually intended to make you feel like shit. I’ll be the first to admit that 90’s survival horror fans - and games - can sometimes fetishise the wrong sorts of friction, and Signalis thankfully knows what to hang on to, and what to jettison out of the airlock like so much dead weight.

So, there’s storage boxes and save rooms (complete with tinkly, twinkly piano), but no ink ribbons or other limited save items (although I wouldn’t say no to an extra difficulty that added these). Elster moves omnidirectional and smooth, and there’s even a tank controls option for self hating idiots connoisseurs. Guns have auto or free aim, pick your poison. There’s no stamina system, so Elster can run forever, but will start to limp and stagger when damaged. The maps are great, too. Doors are coded to show which ones you’ve used, or are broken, or need keys, and ones you’ve yet to try are grayed out. It all helps massively with navigation, without fully giving away secrets like Resi 2 Remake’s slightly too transparent ‘You’ve got all the things already’ indicator. Item descriptions have your back, too, often telling you exactly what floor a key’s corresponding room sits on.

Early on, Elster will find a radio and tuning into different frequencies becomes the catalyst for some great puzzles and story moments and some even spookier stuff I won’t spoil

Staying faithful to the classics doesn’t mean Signalis has no fresh twists, though. Early on, Elster will find a radio and tuning into different frequencies becomes the catalyst for some great puzzles and story moments, and some even spookier stuff I won’t spoil. Just when familiarity starts to become comfort, something W E I R D will happen, like the last lockbox in a chain of keys and locations containing not the final keycard, but an eldritch portal to somewhere…else. It’s also decidedly un-camp, opting for grimy, unsettling vibes and emotional trauma.

Now, Signalis still can’t resist a little cheese, as a treat. Exit a console without saving, and you’ll be warned that ‘You’ll regret this later’. But it trades out spoopy stately homes for cold war concrete, wriggling meat upholstery, and inner turmoil. It’s much more on Silent Hill 2’s wavelength in these regards.

Great puzzles, too. It’s not enough to collect everything, you’ll also want to read everything. I even took notes, scrawling horrible eldritch shit on a missed delivery card and then giggling to myself when I imagined handing it in to a baffled receptionist at the big post office. So, while I think Signalis works best as classic survival horror, non-fans could happily wait for the inventory patch, whack the difficulty down, and you’ve got yourself an atmospheric puzzler with a captivating look and story. There’s many, many tactile doodads and screens to play with, bringing back that adventure game feel from pre-Resi times. Alone in the Dark if Edward Carnby forswore academia, shaved his mustache, and ran off to become a hot android in an interstellar forever war.

As I see it, the main thing holding Signalis back from (I’m gonna say it, hold on to your faces) perfection is lacking enemy variety, and more broadly, the lack of panic-ridden set pieces that this bleeds into. There are absolutely moments of Bad Things Appearing Where There Were No Bad Things Before. It even borrows Resi 1 Remake/The Evil Within’s corpse burning - dead uns’ can spring back to life if you don’t use a limited item to incinerate them, making every walk past a previously defeated enemy tense. The weapons are chunky, especially the shotgun. There’s a flare gun you can burn things with. You use tasers like nu-Resi’s knives. You can stealth past enemies. There’s even a propaganda poster espousing the evils of running in corridors, clueing you into stealth. Love it. But there’s very few Dog Corridors - instances of completely unknown enemies appearing for the first time, in tight confines, and you with absolutely no idea what they’re capable of. Whether you should stand and fight, or whether to scarper to the nearest safe room and cry. I like this stuff a lot. Signalis rarely does it.

The noise of me griping is over. Here’s some much nicer noise: Signalis’ soundtrack. Detuned keys and classical piano. Rattling percussive warnings. Off-kilter audio disruptions, apparently engineered by someone who exclusively has nightmares about malfunctioning 90’s modems. It’s filled with music that elevates emptiness to loneliness, loneliness to horror, and horror to tragedy. This same anarchic, retro-future sound design extends to visual noise, too. From its themes, to its codec-like puzzles, to its visual trickery, there’s more than a whiff of a more reserved Kojima about things. A Kojima that’s happy to remain in the background, let’s say, keeping their disruptions subtle. Fourth wall breaks that take the other three, the roof, and the ceiling with them, but do it smooth and silent as a tablecloth trick. It’s up to you to decide which frequencies to filter out, and which to build a working map of Elster’s reality from.

You’ll first crack open a copy of The King in Yellow in Signalis’ first hour, so Signalis makes no secret that its horror writhes cosmic, not just psychological. But It's a subtle, pernicious use of cosmic horror that doesn’t overplay its hand, employing that genre’s vast sense of mystery with none of its nihilism. In fact, it's the knowing that something beautiful and real existed for Elster that makes Signalis’ horror and tragedy so effective. I tend to be a bit more systems focused, but Sam Greer wrote a bloody lovely pieceover at Eurogamer if you want to read more about Signalis’ as a wonderful piece of art.

As I understood the story, it left me satisfied, but it also left me 100% ready to watch an hour-long video essay on what I missed. But poems can move you as textures of language, ideas, and images, even if you don’t fully grasp their meaning, and Signalis definitely got me right in the feels. If you’ve got any affection for PS1 survival horror, queer android love stories, cold war paranoia aesthetics, retrofuturism, or cosmic horror when people who aren’t Lovecraft do far more interesting stuff with it, Signalis is a must play.

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