They say everything old is new again, and that’s definitely been the case for survival-horror games lately. Full remakes, remasters, and reboots have made the headlines in one of gaming’s more underserved genres, with no end in sight. So it’s been an exciting change of pace to play Signalis, which is blatantly inspired by landmark franchises like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, but offers its own original horror universe to explore.
Signalis doesn’t look exactly like the games that inspired it, but it only takes a short while before a veteran of the genre knows what they’re in for. The top-down 2D pixel art isn’t a precise callback to its spiritual predecessors, nor is its lack of voice acting, but as soon as you start finding door unlock codes on the back of photos you investigate in your inventory screen, memories of the Raccoon City Police Department or Brookhaven Hospital will inevitably come flooding back.
As its protagonist, the robotic LSTR (pronounced Elster), moves through darkened hallways and abandoned dorm rooms set aboard a futuristic space vessel seeking habitable planets for its dystopian “Nation” to conquer; she walks, runs, aims, and carries a gun just like Jill Valentine or another horror alum of the PS1 era. Searching behind every door that isn’t “jammed on the other side” for her missing human companion, the story unfolds in a way you’ve likely seen before–as though you’re perpetually falling into a world you might not be prepared for, but you can’t turn back.
As a horror fan, I found it atmospheric and intoxicating, and it’s often aided by the work of clever audio designers who know when not to fill the space with noise, and who have picked a pitch-perfect safe room song that somehow sounds soothing and spooky at once. Like Silent Hill 2, you’ll even descend into several gaping holes in the world with no foresight of what might await you on the other side. Callbacks like these, which help form its original story in established territory, are subtle references, but other nods are more obvious.
It’s a game where you encounter monsters in hallways with barely any room to run past them, hardly enough ammo to take them down, and seldom a clue as to where you need to go next. But, like the genre’s titans, the devil is always in the details, and the game rewards a cautious but ultimately decisive playstyle. It doesn’t take long to learn that evading enemies is usually better than pumping your only few bullets into them, and even when you must resort to combat, you’ll want to burn the bodies with flares, or else watch as they eventually come back to life to haunt you once more.
Managing your limited inventory space means prepping for the immediate moments when you leave a safe room, because with just six slots to wrestle with, you won’t want to discard precious ammo in order to store a quest item, such as an odd key or a mysterious stone tablet, so it makes no sense to pack for the long haul. With a bit of progress, you’ll find respite in another safe room.
Whenever a puzzle would halt my progress, it always felt like I was just overlooking something. Maybe it was a note in my inventory that hinted at the keycode I lacked. Maybe it was an item I hadn’t found yet because a back alley of assailants stood in my way. Thanks to the game’s helpful map display, which tracks quest items and puzzle areas in familiar but subtly more detailed ways, I was often lost figuratively, but never literally. I always had a rough idea of what I needed to do, which makes the puzzles feel fairer than many of those we’ve seen in games like this.
In this way, Signalis builds on the games it strives to evoke without betraying their vital way of scrambling your brain. That sense of confusion is key to creating the feeling that the walls are closing in around you, like you don’t know where to turn for safety and you’re doomed to walk the halls with the dead forever. Signalis proves that an experience can still be tense without being indecipherable.
To the seasoned horror player, these experiences are surely familiar, but because they’re executed well and supplemented by an engrossing slow-burning story and universe, I find Signalis, in most ways, comfortably stands among the games its two-person team so blatantly adore. When you’re not finding clues in notes or objects, you’re often learning new lore regarding Signalis’ futuristic dystopia, where civil wars, a humanoid-robot working class, and the occult collide to present a world that feels steeped in history even as you’ll see so little of it as Elster. Aided by an unnerving lofi soundtrack, the game’s story and atmosphere land as some of its best, most original feats, and help Signalis stand out more than its purposely tropey puzzles and combat do.
Signalis is owed plenty of praise for all of these stated reasons, though it’s not without faults. Its third-person aiming mechanics can get frustrating at times, as even the soft auto-aim feature on by default is too liable to miss–a save-scum-worthy error when ammo is so low. Maybe this is the game’s way of also mimicking the faulty combat controls of the genre’s progenitors, but to me it just comes off as inadvertently clunky.
Still, it does wind up instilling some fear in the game, which you may be surprised to learn is actually generally lacking. I’ve called the game tense and unnerving, and it is certainly both of those things, but I’ve not called it scary because, unfortunately, it isn’t. I think that particular distinction matters a lot. In tight quarters, enemies will raise your heart rate, but it stems from a will to not reload a save, not from the enemies’ ability to actually scare. Perhaps more than most elements of games, this attribute is highly subjective, but I do expect other similarly versed horror players will agree. I’m tense when I can’t find my wallet. I’m unnerved by getting my picture taken. Being scared is something different, and though I love Signalis for so much of what it does well, it never does feel scary.
But Signalis is great in spite of its lack of true scares and deserves to be played by anyone who enjoys games like it. I’ve enjoyed many horror movies and books that don’t scare me because I like the subject matter, the settings, the characters, or some other elements of them, and the same can be true for games. Signalis isn’t a scary horror game, but it is a memorable one that borrows from the past while helping secure a future for games like this–and the small but talented team, with any luck. For me, atmospheric, tense, and creepy are adequate stand-ins for true horror, and Signalis has plenty to offer along those lines.