Signalis – a gorgeous dystopian creepshow

Not to disparage Uncharted – Legacy of Thieves Collection on the PC (it did get me through the misery of the Christmas and early January period) but I found it far too cheesy and a bit too easy to offer a gaming experience that was memorable or of substance. Certain games direct you, even carry you with them and both Uncharted games were in that vein. They do have a lot of things going for them; lush graphics, exotic locations and beautiful scenery, ostentatious vehicle chase sequences, glib quips, dying a certain way references the final scene in Thelma and Louise, both leant on ludicrous mythologies based extremely loosely on historical fact that were enjoyable for being so unashamedly far-fetched, to surprisingly challenging combat (but only if you pick the crushing setting).

Gameplay and stories filled with fortuitousness was likely a conscious choice by the developers and writers. There’s a subset of gamers out there who don’t want an experience that could potentially irritate or dishearten them. Basically, a Dark Souls type game that builds a sense of dread with grotesque creatures, desolate landscapes, nihilistic narratives and various outcomes, where the immutability of the difficulty (hard, basically) increases the tension, as you know mistakes are not forgiven, there’s no respite from threat, boss fights are perpetual and save points are not abundant. Fuck up and die in Uncharted and you lose no progress.

The best thing I can say about Uncharted is that it acted as palate cleanser (in that I could think about my ASDA shop while playing it) and because it made my mind wander it made me want to be gripped by a Dark Souls 3 or Sekiro again. So, I was faced with a choice, finally get round to letting Elden Ring consume my life but swallow the compromise of having to play it at low to moderate settings on my ancient GTX 980ti to get a good frame rate – because greed in the graphics cards business is threatening to destroy PC gaming – or play something less demanding while I wait forlornly for graphics card prices to drop to a level where I feel I’m not getting mugged off like some cunt.

Being stubbornly patient – Elden Ring will have to wait until the system is upgraded, it deserves as optimal an experience as possible – I was left game hunting. Because I hate shopping around for anything I just pick games that are highly recommended on Steam. Fortunately, with Steam this approach is safe. A community of gamers will always tell you if something is, or isn’t, worth your time or money.

The reviews for Signalis were stellar and richly deserved. It may be a 2D platformer, but there’s so much good going on here, it mixes the beautiful with the macabre, dystopia with fantasy, Nietzsche’s affirmation of the self when set against quasi-religious dogma and nihilism, Japanese and German languages, manga aesthetic with retro 8-bit graphics, dream sequences and esoteric riddles with sudden changes from third person to first person perspective.

You crash land on a planet, your human companion has disappeared, then, searching for her you find what appears to be a facility over a mining operation. Fragments of testimony and lore as to what happened can be collected, but nothing about Signalis is definitive.

All the references are clear and well chosen. You have the feeling of claustrophobia from Alien, Silent Hill’s sinister zombie disease and horror survival schtick, the character’s journey in Signalis is reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness and there are parallels with the game’s progress and the movie The Descent, as the further you descend into the facility the more squalid, grotesque, creepier and unhinged things become.

A futuristic setting, with the colonization of far-away planets and neurotic humanoid Replikas (of which your playable character is one, you learn other models require psychological manipulation with groupthink and fetish items), mixed with puzzles that utilize quixotic forms of antiquated technology sounds an odd mix, but trust me, because you’re that engrossed by surviving and discovering “the facility” and just hoping to reach some kind of resolution amid all the existentialism and angst, you never think ‘oh come on, that’s bollocks that’.

How you progress is mostly linear and at most stages can be played at a pace to suit yourself. It makes any changes of tempo more jarring, when the game leaves you no choice but to act and think quickly. The levels are a series of rooms, which you have to explore for clues to solve puzzles that open up the next level or area of the level, or give you necessary weapon upgrades to advance. While not all rooms pose a threat, the quiet ones in concert with an eerie drone soundtrack instills a sense of dread at what’s waiting behind the next door. Will the zombie bastards ambush you from underneath the floor? When doubling back (and there’s quite a bit of this) will one of the zombies you aced earlier reanimate suddenly? Will that room you’ve yet to explore be pitch black and you don’t yet have the flashlight or have it equipped to see what lurks? There also multiple possible endings, and this is decided by a number of variables; how long your playthrough takes, how often you heal, talk to NPCs and how much combat you engage in.

No game is perfect, but my quibbles with Signalis are minor. You can only carry six items at one time, be it weapons, ammo, collectables that open rooms and special ability upgrades. This is good in a sense, as it increases the challenge and forces you to prioritise inventory and plan ahead, but I found it slightly annoying that certain very small items, say a key, or a ring, took up the same carry space as a fuck off shotgun. And one bit of advice, if you select the survival combat setting you have to ration your ammo and you use it diligently. I learned the hard way, while it is enjoyable to blast and burn the zombies, it’s best to leg it past the weaker slower ones where possible, as using too much (or any) ammo on them can easily leave you short when faced with a boss.

Ultimately, it’s this stuff that matters most when judging games, does it test you and therefore hold your attention? I have yet to play a good game that doesn’t. Does it surprise you? Does the art design and gameplay leave a lasting impression? Signalis checks all these boxes, that it also has a sui-generis story filled with enough ambiguity to encourage the Madeleine McCann question will always be preferable to a Tomb Raider knockoff riddled with exposition. Okay, maybe that was disparaging.

My first playthrough on the survival setting of Signalis took roughly eighteen hours, that’s under half the length of time I took to play both Uncharted games. But at £16 compared with £40 for Uncharted, it was Signalis that proved real value for money.

About Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard

Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard. 'Mediocre blogger and a piously boring and unfunny writer'. Enthusiastic purveyor of the KLF sheep.
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