Signalis, the debut horror survival horror game from the mostly two-person developer rose-engine, wears its influences on its sleeve. It opens with a direct quote from a (somewhat lesser known) Lovecraft story, “The Festival,” and a mysterious copy of The King in Yellow. Though the game plays a lot more like Silent Hill in space. It’s a moody, disjointed series of bad happenings on the wrong end of space. And you, the biomechanical android called Elster, are looking for someone.
Who is that person? What’s your relationship to them? Why were they working on a snowy mining colony that Elster seemingly crashed into? These are all questions Elster refuses to answer throughout most of the game. I said “you” are her before, but that’s not entirely the case. Signalis is not a horror game in the sense of jump scares and gore. Instead, it’s all about the creeping dread, rationing ammunition and healing items as you walk through dark hallways filled with half-melted zombie droids as well as, most crucially, feeling like nothing more than a passenger for the whole ride. You are not Elster; you are just a witness to her journey.
That sensation is aided here by a detached overhead camera. Elster aims and shoots below your view with the aid of a fairly generous lock-on. But the laser targeting reticle flickers and glitches under the jagged “PS1-style” polygons in which the game is built. The monsters’ corpses flicker, too. Almost as if they’re not entirely dead. Which seems odd… until you realize they can eventually get back up and start chasing you again. Only burning them — usually with incendiary flares even rarer than bullets — puts a creature down permanently.
Better to leave them alone, in my opinion. Just run past and hope you don’t get cleaved, bashed, or shot by one of the shambling, scuttling things. You’ve got more important things to do. You’ve got puzzles to solve.
Like Silent Hill (and Resident Evil and a whole host of other horror games usually found on the first two PlayStations) this is the real meat of play in Signalis. The game is basically split into three major acts, with each focused on exploring and mapping several floors to solve some kind of central puzzle. The ur-puzzle.
Each ur-puzzle is connected to many smaller puzzles throughout the level. You might open an esoteric combination lock to a safe, for instance, to retrieve a tarot card with a phase of the moon printed on one side. The rest of the chapter is then about finding more tarot cards and arranging them in the proper order to unlock a final, much larger door to the next area.
The monsters are mostly just there to get in Elster’s way and dare you to waste resources. Signalis exacerbates this further by also borrowing an ultra-limited inventory system from its progenitors. You can only hold six items at a time — meaning health packs, ammo, and even a flashlight might need to be left in a save room so you can carry keys and other door-opening doodads.
In this way, Signalis is really a game about going from point A to B. Only to realize you need to reach point C, first, to get a key to the door at B, which means going back to point D to grab the flashlight you left there so you can get down the dark hallway between A and C. Phew! Now it’s just a matter of…
Oops! The armless, girder-headed mutant you killed 10 minutes ago just stood back up. It’s joined by a screeching blob that can only be killed by tuning Elster’s built-in radio — which mostly picks up indecipherable messages from numbers stations — to the right frequencies. Maybe you should have brought the shotgun to buy yourself some space.
This is most what Signalis is, but it’s not really what Signalis is about. The game is much more dreamlike than cold, hard ammo conservation might have you believe. At one point you pick up a VHS tape to see a white-haired girl you’ve never met before sitting on a subway in a first-person walking section. She disappears to leave behind another “key” for the next door you need to open in the real world.
But what is real in this place? What isn’t? Who is the girl? Who is Elster? What’s the true nature of android “Replikas” like her and the bizarre government that built (or rather grew) them?
I was fairly satisfied with my own answers to these questions — which honestly felt pretty clearcut to me by the end, despite the intentionally jittery cutscenes and dialogue that jumps around from scene to scene. Other reviewers I know have had a tougher time. This might be due to the game’s multiple endings, mind you. I think I got the most complete one. Though I couldn’t tell you why; I’ve also compared notes with fellow reviewers and know that I made most of the same in-game choices as them.
The ending I received was warm and tragic. Like most good “psychological horror,” it made me about the psyches of the actors involved for the pain to bite home.
Signalis bit me deep. Much deeper than I anticipated from what could have easily been just another “retro inspired” horror game in the recent sea of such things. I choked up over Elster and her tale once they were as fully revealed to me as the game allows and I’ve been turning it all over in my head ever since. The fact that it also tickled the ruthlessly calculating survival horror loving part of my brain just feels like a bonus. It’s the world and characters and atmosphere I’m going to be thinking about much longer than other resource scavenging puzzle fests.
This review is based on the PC version of Signalis — played on both a desktop computer and the Steam Deck — using a code provided by the publisher.