Syndrome is a first-person sci-fi survival horror from independent studio Camel 101. There aren’t many games that inhabit this sub-genre, but there’s something about this particular combination of flavors that throws out some pretty tasty titles. You can’t think about sci-fi survival horror games without naming Alien: Isolation, SOMA or Dead Space. When Syndrome was first announced, and a trailer was released, I became a little excited. Camel 101 wanted to take survival horror back to its roots. Syndrome looked like it was going to have the atmosphere of Alien: Isolation, the mysterious and compelling story of SOMA, and the visceral combat of Dead Space. What they brought to the table was a little of all of the above, a little of their own retro-horror, but nowhere near enough of either to step from the shadows.
The game opens with the protagonist, Trent Galen, waking up from cryosleep aboard the SPS Valkunburg, with no memory of anything that’s gone before. You begin to learn through a combination of text logs and radio conversations that something has gone horribly wrong. In a near silent spaceship drifting through the cosmos, every metallic creak and clunk is amplified. There’s a distinct lack of hand-holding that continues throughout the game, and I found this very refreshing. Especially nowadays when it’s assumed that the player needs every little mechanic explained to them, rather than allowing us to discover things for ourselves.
We’re left to wander through desolate hallways, stumbling upon mutilated corpses and inactive robots silhouetted menacingly in the distance. Complete isolation will always be an excellent tool for ensuring tension and immersion. It worked to great effect in SOMA, and it works in Syndrome. You are kept in the dark about absolutely everything, even in a physical sense. The contrast between the light and the dark areas is stark, and gives pitch black hallways an ominous feel. The way the environment looks was very reminiscent of the first Bioshock. The two games couldn’t be more different, but it’s the style of graphic design, and the way light plays off the surroundings that resonates with the presentation of Bioshock. All of this, in these first moments, is giving me the chills. Unfortunately, where the game does well building an excellent atmosphere in the beginning, a number of faults do the opposite job as you progress.
Atmosphere can only get you so far before the tasks set out become laborious. There are only ever really one or two objectives. Either you’re going to a room to click a button, or you’re going to a room to collect an item that will allow you to get into a locked room to click a button. As simple as it sounds, sometimes even this isn’t achieved effectively. For one particular objective, I needed to restore the power to a some function of the ship. I arrived at the room, and could not for the life of me figure out what I was supposed to do. Up until this point, the action to be taken upon arriving at an objective was fairly obvious; click on the screen with the massive picture of a finger making a clicking gesture. On this occasion, it took me skirting the room clicking on everything until a panel that had before been blending seamlessly into the wall opened up. It doesn’t help that interacting with objects in the game requires being very close to what you’re trying to manipulate.
In between all of this button clicking there’s an awful lot of uneventful walking to be done. You can bet your life that after completing one objective, your next destination will be at the other end of the ship. About 20% of the time, there are some enemies lingering conveniently around where you need to be. At first, I didn’t like the enemies. They don’t really have a dynamic other than spotting you and shambling towards you. The first beasties you encounter can quite easily be dispatched with a few well timed whacks from the melee tool you acquire, so quickly lose their danger-factor.
Other than the melee tool, there are a handful of other weapons that offer a pretty standard combat experience. Shoot with a pistol or with an SMG, if you feel you can spare the ammo. Or even a grenade launcher, for the last 30 minutes of the game. I would have liked the enemies to have reacted to being shot. As it is, they simply continue towards you as if nothing has happened, so it can be a little difficult to know whether you’ve actually hit them or not.
As the game progresses, the roster of robotic nightmares becomes quite formidable, so combat is no longer an option. Stealth and sneaking are a must when you hear the tell-tale mechanized footsteps of the dual-bladed variant. These monsters are blind, but very sensitive to sound, and can near enough deliver an instakill if they catch up to you, which they will. In outmaneuvering them, the game becomes challenging and tense, and rather enjoyable, but these moments are few and far between. There are other unique enemies to encounter, but I won’t spoil the surprise.
Speaking of surprises, the game doesn’t offer very many regarding the plot. For more than half of Syndrome, the only real story revelations are that “something” went wrong after the military came aboard with an artifact. There are a spattering of text logs referring to the ship’s descent into anarchy, some shining light on our protagonist Trent’s involvement in events before things went wrong. For a long time I felt as if there was nothing drawing me along, other than the next button to press. There is a plot twist towards the end, relating to Trent, which mattered so little as to be inconsequential. Soon after, this is redeemed somewhat when the game finally starts to address the nature of the artifact, but don’t expect any grand revelations.
In trying to emulate, or at least utilize elements of, previous sci-fi survival horrors like SOMA or Alien: Isolation, you inevitably invite comparison to these stellar examples. Each of these games had their own gripes, but manage to keep you immersed in the story, in the environment, in the feeling of horror. Syndrome has potential; it establishes a great atmosphere early on, but doesn’t really do anything with it. Immersion is so important in horror, and there are too many instances in the game where this is broken by glitches. At one point, I fell through the scenery and was left drifting through black space. On numerous occasions, I had to quit the game because my weapon wouldn’t fire, the sound effects turned off or the game simply crashed.
I wish there was more to praise. It wouldn’t have taken much more work to capitalize on the foundation of horror established early on. I really struggled with Syndrome; I sorely wanted to like it, but there was just too much to let it down. It may seem I have had a lot of bad to say, but I still recommend playing it. There is just enough to enjoy for it to feel like it was a worthwhile experience. I have a fondness for survival horror in a science fiction setting, so maybe it ticked enough of the right boxes for my own preferences.
Syndrome is available from the Steam store October 6.