Review – Signalis
It’s hard to ignore that we are arguably living in the new golden age for horror games. Over the past few years, we’ve had a wealth of great horror games after an extensive dry period. Ranging from terrifying and engaging games, like MADiSON and Visage, providing relentless assaults on the senses, or the return of action horror in Resident Evil and the upcoming Dead Space revival. However, one type of horror that stands out is the rise of retro horror. Games like Tormented Souls or Alisa, which unashamedly call back to the good old days of the genre, whilst introducing their own unique spin. Signalis, from the new indie studio Rose-Engine, has been a long time coming, and it was easily worth the wait.
You play as ELSTER, a Replika (Android with codesign LSTR) in a dystopian future where humanity has advanced to colonising the solar system. Awakening from cryo on a wrecked ship, you head out on a journey into the Sierpinski mining facility, looking for your lost partner and answers to the weird dreams you have been having.
From the very moment you boot up Signalis, you are hooked into its twisted and cryptic world. Its story is vague, only giving you brief glimpses of what it’s even about throughout the game. Images flash during cutscenes, and the world is packed with environmental storytelling and text logs to help. It’s a world that you want to explore more of and fill in the blanks. One that will repeatedly subvert all expectations in its very structure. I won’t spoil what happens here, but prepare yourself for something a little bit different in the best of ways.
Calling back to the classic survival horror game, Signalis indulges in just about every aspect of them; from limited inventory to vague puzzle design, visuals, and even its core gameplay mechanics. Signalis is played from an isometric point of view as you control ELSTER throughout the Penrose facility. The gameplay itself is pretty straightforward, in the best of ways. It leaves you free to explore these intricately designed maps with plenty of horrors.
Combat will have you either avoiding enemies to save supplies or shooting some basic weapons at them, either with a lock-on system or completely free aim. It controls fine and certainly doesn’t make strides to do anything unique. In the event you do take enemies, which you will need to do from time to time, there is a potential for them to come back later. To counter this, using thermite on their corpses will permanently kill them. In addition to this, ELSTER can use some defensive items, like a stun baton to get away or reposition. There are boss fights scattered throughout, but none of them are particularly memorable, despite their cool designs. Except for the last one, which does try to do something different.
If you are like me and try to avoid enemies as much as possible, you will likely save on the limited supplies. Especially if you only take on enemies that are crucial. When you enter a room, enemies won’t be alerted to you and will only trigger when you enter their field of vision or sprint by them. This allows you to sneak by, but it won’t always work. You never know if an enemy you left alone is on the other side of a door when backtracking. ELSTER will also have access to a variety of tools including stun batons, thermite, and a flashlight which you will need to traverse the dangerously dark sections of the map.
It’s constantly tense, wanting to know what is around the next corner lying in wait. Going through doorways and hoping an enemy isn’t waiting right there. There’s little in the way of jumpscares, but plenty of unease, such as not knowing if the enemy I killed will come back and haunt me the next time I run through that area. Or drop into a dark hole in the ground knowing I can’t back out. Signalis nails that feeling of tension with its world. It’s not a traditionally scary game, but it never was trying to be. Signalis‘ strength is in how it subverts expectations as you delve further into the unknown. It utilizes some unique twists to the formula that keep things exciting.
Puzzles themselves are cryptic, but don’t fall into the trap of some survival horror where they are obtuse requiring mental gymnastics to figure something out. In fact, Signalis does a great job of pointing you to where you need to go. Item descriptions tell you which floor keycards can be used and there’s a red marker on the map when you have an item for a puzzle. Thankfully, none it is too much of a handhold. It does expect you to remember details and trusts the player enough to figure some things out. There is a camera item that allows you to snapshots of what’s on the screen, or if you feel like cheesing it, take notes or screenshots on your platform of choice.
The biggest trick Signalis has is its clever radio system. Fairly early on in the game, you are able to tune ELSTER’s radio to pick up different signals. This will range from music to cryptic messages, but that’s not all. Throughout the game, you will encounter enemy types that need you to quickly switch frequencies in order to deal with them. There are even puzzles that make clever use of the mechanic.
Much like the spectacular Resident Evil Remake, you will only get six inventory slots and it’s up to you how to play it. Feel like more ammunition and health supplies are needed? Bring them along, but be aware that you might run out of room for important key items to help you progress, requiring more trips to the inventory box (which of course is persistent across all boxes). The last thing you want is to make it through a tricky zone only not to have enough inventory slots to carry that key item. Although, if you are confident in where you are going it might be worth dumping your entire inventory to help you sweep an entire section in one go.
This restricted limited inventory creates these wonderfully tense moments as you plan out a new way to get them without wasting resources. That feeling of dread when you go to pick up an item, only to be greeted by the no-space warning never gets old. You’ll have to plan the safest routes to go back and forth from item boxes. However, Signalis isn’t too punishing. You do get four separate save slots, as well as unlimited saves themselves, so don’t worry about messing up you can revert to a previous save. You won’t need special items to even save either. The limited inventory is going to be addressed in a patch for those that are put off by the really strict limits.
Signalis takes nostalgia to the next level with its beautifully recreated PlayStation-era graphics. Every aspect of this game’s visuals mimics its inspirations, from jagged edges to low-polygon models. Despite this, key items have enough visibility that they will catch your eye as soon as you enter the room. It’s a cool effect that works wonderfully with the type of game Signalis is. It has great lighting that pushes through the dark corners and creature designs that shine through the intentionally aged visuals. Signalis has a unique visual design that you simply can’t look away from.
However, the sound is a totally different story and is something that can be hard to describe. As the name of the game implies, Signalis plays a lot with frequencies and signals. It’s something you will be hearing a lot of in the game as you uncover hidden and terrifying messages. Mix that with a haunting and minimalistic backing soundtrack, as well as some great overall sound design, and you’ve got something that is unique and further engages you in the world. When combat starts, the soundtrack kicks into life to cause a sense of dread and panic. Play with headphones on- trust me on this.
Playing on Steam Deck, you can expect a most fantastic experience as well. I hit that 60FPS target for the vast majority of my playtime. The exception comes with reflections, that do stress the handheld out a little bit and drops the framerates into the 40s. If you want a more consistent experience, turning the reflections off or dropping your refresh rate to 40Hz should do the trick and provide something with a bit more stable. Otherwise, it is still playable on default settings.
Signalis pretty much perfects this new wave of retro survival horror. It has a surprisingly engaging world that just pulls you in and never lets go. If you are a fan of the genre this is an absolute must-play. Signalis is easily one of my favourite games of this year.
Signalis‘ distinct retro looks won’t be for everyone but it’s personally what caught my attention with the game.
Some weak boss encounters aside. Signalis is a fantastic take on the retro horror.
The sound design perfectly fits in with the themes of the game and brings the tension to the next level.
Signalis is a must-play for fans of the genre.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Signalis is available now on PC.
Reviewed on PC with an RTX 2060, Ryzen 5 3600X and 16GB RAM. Also tested on Steam Deck.
A copy of Signalis was provided by the publisher.