US: 6 Oct 2016
Syndrome starts well with a slow burn that emphasizes everything that the game does right. Unfortunately, all that build-up and mood-setting doesn’t lead us anywhere good.
The story is your typical sci-fi horror setup. You awake on a ship where things have gone to hell, and you have to find a way to escape while solving the mystery and surviving against monsters. It’s typical stuff, but well done. You spend the game in communication with two different people: Neomi, who is a security officer, and Jimmy, who is a worker. Naturally, they both warn you against trusting the other, and it’s easy to assume that one of them is lying, but their distrust stems from an interesting place. As you read more logs and journals and such, you’ll discover that there’s always been animosity between the worker class and the officer class on the ship. Having your dueling advisors represent each class is a nice way of bringing that struggle into the present, it and raises the intriguing possibility that both Neomi and Jimmy are trying to help. Their class stations are something that you have to consider when deciding to trust them. In this way, the backstory affects the current story, which makes the whole world feel more cohesive and natural.
Syndrome is surprisingly restrained for the first couple hours. It’s just you exploring this broken down ship, and it works. The level design is quite good, the ship genuinely feels like a ship, and its decks and rooms are arranged in a logical way. But what really makes this early game work is its atmosphere. The lighting is excellent, casting complex shadows over every surface, plunging you into a darkness that is scary yet still navigable. The sound design is similarly great. Echoes, creaks, and screams make you think that something is around every corner.
This early game works because it uses our expectations against us. We see the dead bodies all over the ship, we hear the warnings from Naomi and Jimmy, we know something is going to come after us but we don’t know when, and every second that passes with no combat or no monster revealed is another second of beautiful, agonizingly tense waiting.
Unfortunately, the game nearly ruins this atmosphere with poor pacing. No objective is ever simple. You’ll be told to do something cool, like blow up a communications dish with a turret, but then you’ll find the door to Turret Control is locked. First you have to find a security official with access, but before that you have to find a computer that lets you looks up crew information. What started as a simple single step gets dragged out to three steps or more. All these excess objectives send you backtracking across the ship over and over and over again until you’re dying to see something new and just get on with it all.
This reaches a peak absurdity about halfway through the game when Jimmy is in trouble and we’re told to hurry down to Deck 1 to save him. Of course we can’t just take the main elevator there, we first have to go to Deck 2, then find another elevator, then find a power core because, of course, this second damn elevator doesn’t work. Once we finally get to Deck 1, and we’re crawling through the vents so very close to our goal, then Jimmy pops in our ear to say, “Actually, you should go to Deck 8 instead. Oh, but first go to Deck 7 and get a key.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.
Whatever narrative tension the game was going for was immediately rendered void. At this point, I ceased to care about Jimmy and ceased to care about the mystery because it was obvious that the story was spinning its wheels to pad out the game’s playtime, and stretching thin all of its good qualities. Yet somehow, despite itself, exploring the ship during these meandering missions is still a scary experience. The sound and lighting are really that good.
But then the monsters show up and everything falls apart.
First off, the monster designs themselves are quite good. They’re reminiscent of the body horror of The Thing: metal tools grafted onto a person’s arm, a head spit open down the middle, or a human face stitched onto an android’s body. It’s frightening stuff—until you fight them.
Combat is boring. Part of this is due to the poor controls. The game feels awful with a controller. Looking around is imprecise, movement is clunky, and interacting with terminals is slow and cumbersome. With a mouse, we at least have some precision and a better interface with the terminals, but there’s no improvement to the combat.
There are several types of monsters, and each one seems designed to be fought (or avoided) in a particular way. Early on, the creatures encourage melee combat since they’re attracted to sound over sight, but our melee attack is so slow compared to them. We have to walk backwards and try to time our swing so that the weapon is coming down as we move in for an attack. However, they’re still so fast that we just end up trading blows. All melee combat is just trading blows until one of us dies.
We could shoot them, but that’s just as awkward. Enemies don’t react to being shot—at all. This makes it hard to know if you’re doing anything. Are our shots landing? Are headshots doing more damage than body shots? Can this thing even be killed or is it invincible? Confusion aside, gun combat plays out the way same that melee combat does. All you do is back up while shooting until the thing dies. You’re not trading blows, so that’s good, but once again the combat requires so little thought that it’s boring. In each case, you’re just running in circles until a thing dies.
You can try to sneak past them instead (and indeed some monsters are so strong that we’re meant to sneak by them), but the game goes out of its way to make this playstyle painful. For some reason, crouching is mapped to the C button on the keyboard, and you can’t remap any of the buttons. Trying to move around using WASD while also holding down C forces your hand into a bizarre, misshapen claw. It literally hurts to play the game stealthily.
As a final approach, you could split the difference and play as a piece of bait. Some monsters won’t chase after you unless you first get very close to them. These guys are also very slow, you can literally walk faster than them, and they stop chasing you if you get too far away. So instead of fighting them or sneaking past them, you can run up to get their attention, lead them away to some distant corner of the ship, and then run away really fast. It’s effective, but it certainly doesn’t do much to inspire fear. These monsters are more like a dorky kid being teased by his classmates, blindfolded and led around before being left alone in the girl’s bathroom. It’s hard to be scared of such a sad little creature.
If you fight a monster, you have to deal with the awkward controls and poorly balanced combat. If you sneak by a monster, you have to hurt yourself thanks to the poor control layout. If you bait them, you’re undercutting any horror that they might possibly evoke. Different monsters require different approaches, but every choice is a bad one. No choice is fun, and no choice is scary.
There are moments when Syndrome shows promise of a better game. Those long stretches of exploration, as meandering as they are, also represent the game at its scariest. It does a damn fine job setting the mood, it just can’t follow through.