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Syndrome: Indie survival horror

Jump scares, creepy sounds and bad lighting are key features of survival horror games, but they are not the entire basis of the genre

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Syndrome, sci-fi survival horror from developer Camel 101, initially seemed to have some promise. From the handful of trailers and screenshots I saw while waiting for the game to download it seemed like an indie hybrid of Alien: Isolation, Dead Space and Doom 3—some of my favourite games. Alas, any excitement I had dissipated within the first hour.

The beginning of a game ought to be interesting enough that you want to go further and see what the story has to offer; whether by sprinkling clues of a universe you want to discover, dumping you into a high speed chase or waking you up in the middle of an abandon ship order. Syndrome, however, does none of this. Instead, the first minutes of the game are spent bumbling through the “I’m all alone on a spaceship” cliché and you quickly discover that most of the crew are dead.

stasis pod

The capsule where this saga began.

Over the course of the first half hour of the game, a few diary entries and radio conversations with other survivors are intended to build suspense and flesh out the story; however, I really struggled to find myself caring about what was going on. These tactics are successfully used by other games in the genre but in Syndrome, I don’t think enough effort was made to establish a premise for the player to actually care about.

By the time the action started, I was really forcing myself to go on. They game is not exactly buggy, but it strikes me as being unfinished. Simple things, such as how to save the game, are not actually explained and so, after dying to an electrical fault, I had to re-do 45 minutes of gameplay. Combat starts soon after you get your first weapon, an all-purpose wrench (sound familiar?), although the pacing is strange and it is difficult to win a fight without losing most of your health. I think you are expected to run-and-hide more than stand-and-fight but encounters with enemies seem so heavily scripted (often appearing straight after completing an objective) that running away does not seem like an option. Jump scares are frequent (if ineffective) and backtracking through the ship to find objects or use computers is all too common.

At this stage, I should probably say that it is not all bad. The design of the ship is often very impressive and really fits the genre and the graphics (for an indie game, not a Triple-A) are very good.

poorly lit corridor

The graphics were frequently impressive (when it was bright enough to see anything).

To create atmosphere, the developers have relied heavily on things being really really dark which, despite fitting the setting, quickly becomes a hindrance. Some rooms are inaccessible due to unseen objects blocking your entry and exposed electrical wires (pretty much the main threat early on in the game) are often invisible unless you pump up the gamma.

Their other key atmospheric technique is another survival horror staple: creepy sounds. In Alien and Dead Space, creepy sounds work well, because they are usually subtle. Alien Isolation is packed full of creaks and thuds, but the suspense comes from the fact that you are not always sure if you can hear the Alien, or just the space-station falling apart. Dead Space has a constant, almost inaudible whisper in your ear throughout the entire game, the purpose of which becomes apparent much later. Syndrome on the other hand has an array of synth music, skittering and other environmental sounds which results in a sort of audio-mess. Furthermore, after you complete an objective, you are usually greeted with a comically loud growl or scream, signifying that you are about to fight an enemy while also ruining any hope of immersion.

Ultimately, the issue with Syndrome is that the first hour or so of gameplay was not at all entertaining. Combat was very clunky and I was frequently left wondering what to do; had I bought the game, I would definitely have refunded it within the 2-hour grace period. The gameplay trailer and screenshots seem to show a game more enjoyable, dramatic and fast-paced than what we have here (when don’t they?) but I really have to question whether the game is actually ready for release. Jump scares, creepy sounds and bad lighting are key features of survival horror games, but they are not the entire basis of the genre.