It’s impossible to talk about Signalis without a brief history lesson.
If you’re an old gamer like me, you’ll remember three key games that were released in the '90s on the original PlayStation. They defined the generation in terms of storytelling and cinematics, visual styles, music and of course gameplay. They were doing things in games that had never been seen before, and became some of the most influential video games of all time. They were Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill. Signalis takes elements from each of these games, using them for inspiration in creating its own mysterious world.
In Signalis, you play as an android named Elster, who has mysteriously arrived at a neglected and seemingly deserted facility. You are in search of your friend, who will hopefully be able to clear up what exactly is going on. Upon exploring the environment, you’ll soon come across enemies, which are strange mutations, an unfriendly bunch that may or may not have originally been the androids that once populated the facility. The setup and story for the game is very vague, but it always gives the player just enough to keep the interest up as you explore the game.
The game is played with a 2½D top-down camera, giving the game a tight and deliberately claustrophobic feel. There are many times where you can hear, but not see the enemies. When you do see the enemies, you can choose to run around them or take your weapon out and take them down (whilst remembering to finish them off with a kick.) This brings me onto a hugely important part of the game; resources are tight in Signalis. Ammo and health are in extremely short supply, meaning that every decision you make has to be carefully considered. This is all deliberately designed, of course, increasing the sense of fear and anxiety as you play.
Along the way, you’ll come across puzzles to solve, which range from classic Resident Evil-style ‘turning on fuses on a power supply in the correct order’, working out safe combinations by using the in-game radio which broadcasts hidden numbers like something out of Lost and is certainly reminiscent of MGS, to incredibly vague and complex puzzles later in the game that actually had me get out a notepad to write things down–something I’ve not really done in a game for many years!
The graphic style screams original PlayStation, with its simplified textures, lighting, and shadows, creating really interesting lo-fi visuals. Throughout the game, you’ll come across VHS cassette tapes, CRT monitors and even floppy discs which really fit the aesthetic well. Not only that, but the world is full of neat details too. Machines and computers have company logos and branding, they click and hum like old computers used to, and all of this increases the feel of authenticity in the world building. It really feels like Metal Gear Solid. Additionally, the cutscenes are brilliant, with the stylised art and camera angles, coupled with haunting music, they really fit the visual style of the game perfectly.
As you progress, you’ll encounter boss fights, more enemies, stronger weapons, and more complex puzzles to work. Some will involve lots of back-tracking through the game, so if you chose to not kill an enemy, or have run out of ammo, you’ll have to navigate around them to avoid getting hurt. The game employs a very tight inventory with only a few slots of space. After a weapon, ammo, and some health, there's only a few slots to actually hold items that you’ll either need for a puzzle, or have found on your way. This does mean you’ll be revisiting lots of areas multiple times to get everything you need, because you simply can’t carry it all at once. Whilst sometimes there’s legitimate frustration because you forgot to place an item you don’t need in your storage box (a place where you can store a seemingly unlimited amount of items, and these are located in the game's save rooms) so you can’t pick up the new key you’ve found, it does heighten the fear further because you know you’ve now got to do another run to clear some inventory space. In Signalis you never feel safe or at ease, it’s truly brilliant at building and sustaining fear. You’ll never feel like you’ve got one over the game or that you’re at an advantage, and it’s all the better for it.
The game features dream and memory sequences as you play, and whilst these are used to progress the story, I am almost certain they are designed to further confuse. It’s often hard to know what they are; Is it a memory? A flashback? An out of body experience? It will keep you guessing throughout the entire duration of the game–which, incidentally, takes about 10 hours to complete.
It’s not all great though; the boss fights and general combat can sometimes be quite frustrating as it’s occasionally hard to see how close you are to an enemy, and aiming at the bosses can sometimes be tricky since they’re faster moving. As previously mentioned, the very tight inventory space can cause frustrations at times, because it’s just a little too limited. If there was a way of upgrading it to increase the storage, that would have really benefitted the latter half of the game. Resident Evil did solve these issues in newer games, making things like key items not part of the inventory, freeing up space for valuable resources such as ammo or an additional weapon.
All in all though, Signalis is a fantastically crafted game, taking inspiration from older games and sci-fi movies, but bringing enormous amounts of its own style and atmosphere. As Resident Evil has evolved into a different game and Metal Gear Solid is sadly no longer with us, it’s surprisingly refreshing to play something that looks and feels like those games once did, but also stands tall against many modern AAA titles in its storytelling, atmospheric design and how it makes the player feel. I really enjoyed Signalis and I look forward to seeing what the developer does next.
Signalis is a PS4 game, we reviewed it on PS5 but it is also available on Xbox Game Pass.