SIGNALIS (Xbox Series) Review

Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up…
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I’m always disappointed with Silent Hill fans who clamour for remakes when its legacy – as the most recognisable progenitor of the psychological-horror genre – is still going strong, especially in the indie space. However, you rarely see those same fans promote any of these indie titles – assuming they’re even aware they exist. That’s a shame as SIGNALIS, more so than any recent psychological-horror game I’ve played, manages to emulate many narrative and gameplay elements that made 1999’s Silent Hill so memorable. Coming from the two-person team, rose-engine, it’s also a fantastic game for classic survival-horror fans in its own right.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

To call SIGNALIS’ story confusing would be an understatement. Its very premise is a wild mash-up of cultures, sci-if themes, and psychological horror elements that, during the opening hours, leave you wondering what, if anything, that you experience is real. The distinctly anime-inspired Asian characters you encounter are “Gestalts and Replikas” – think human and android workers respectively – that serve a space-faring Germanic empire, exploring the outer edges of their solar system while still fighting against the remnants of a defeated empire among the innermost planets. SIGNALIS, despite drawing on common sci-fi ideas, merges them to create a compelling world that had me just as interested in finding titbits of background lore as I was in unravelling the central mystery.

Honestly, I’m still not 100% certain I understood the significance of every encounter or flashback – but the opening hours are compelling enough, or at least intriguing enough, to keep you pushing forward. During the traditional gameplay sequences, you take control of a technician Replika – “Elster” – exploring a multi-level, often maze-like facility, on the hunt for her lost Gestalt partner, Alina. Something has gone horribly wrong, with an infection killing Gestalts and reanimating Replikas in a deranged state. However, that’s only one part of the story as you keep experiencing flashbacks involving a troubled young woman named “Isa”, who you can also encounter within the facility. The longer you play, the more you reveal about her past, discover the flawed nature of the Replika program, and piece together events leading up to the present crisis. SIGNALIS ultimately explains away a lot of what you’re experiencing but, instead of undermining the horror elements like so many games do, it adds a layer of tragedy.

SIGNALIS Flashbacks

The story plays out as you move between parts of the facility, interspersed with anime-inspired cutscenes and in-game events that use quick transitions, flashes of images or text on the screen, and tons of audiovisual distortion. These moments are often abrupt, shocking, and confusing; catch you off-guard during calmer gameplay sequences; or suddenly transition you from imminent danger to safety. These events are essential storytelling devices; however,  there is one downside – anyone with photosensitivity issues should note SIGNALIS offers no accessibility toggles to tone down these effects (only amplify them if you enable some retro visual filters).

Immersing yourself in the world and story is that much easier as SIGNALIS is visually striking and sounds incredible, well, so long as you enjoy the pixel-art aesthetic and abundant use of audiovisual distortion. The isometric backdrops are dark, grimy, and incredibly detailed, coupled with dynamic light sources, harsh shadows, and smoothly-animated models that feel grounded in the world. Impressively, the engine can also render first-person scenes that capture the look and feel of the PSOne-era – although obviously with modern visual effects that convince your mind that’s how it used to look. The soundtrack is subdued outside of key locations and safe rooms, while the ambience is an unsettling mix of industrial sounds. It all synergises to create an incredibly atmospheric, moody, and often terrifying game.

SIGNALIS Puzzles

Silent Hill… is that you?

As a fan of classic survival-horror games, I loved the adherence to authenticity in SIGNALIS and this is a game made for fans first and foremost. The isometric perspective may lack the charm of fixed camera angles, but the gameplay mechanics and level design choices stick close to the classic template – albeit with several smart tweaks to keep you on track without relying on a quest log or objective list. There’s a focus on careful movement to avoid enemies, deliberate gunplay to preserve ammunition and powerful weapons, key hunts that lead you ever deeper into the facility, and a limited inventory that forces you to plan your outing and consider what is essential.

When you throw in a manual save system with safe rooms – complete with items boxes and a soothing music track – it all feels very close to the early Resident Evil games. However, the many gruesome environments, complex puzzles with indirect clues, and the psychological-horror elements all bring the experience closer to Silent Hill. As such, the bulk of your playtime is spent exploring the ruined facility room by room, floor by floor, finding keys and solving puzzles, scavenging for combat or health supplies to get past deranged Replikas, and finding notes with clues or background lore. If the idea of a manual save system puts you off, just remember SIGNALIS is only punishing if you’re reckless and the level design is excellent – ensuring you’ll frequently open shortcuts so you can restock and save frequently.

SIGNALIS Boss Fight

Now, although you’re often avoiding Replikas, it’s worth emphasising that SIGNALIS is a puzzle game at heart and those on offer are great. It’s primarily an assortment of logic puzzles and key hunts, but there’s room for stranger encounters – like using radio frequencies to reveal codes and manipulate enemies, or entering first-person flashbacks and emerging with real-world items. The puzzles often have clues or key items spread throughout each level but, thankfully, important locations you discover are always highlighted on the map, greyed-out when complete, and there’s even an equipable camera for storing up to six in-game screenshots to record environmental clues. When you couple these assists with a map that tracks accessible, locked, and blocked doors, SIGNALIS will never leave you uncertain of where to explore next.

Combat has always been an integral part of survival-horror games, even if it’s rarely the focus. SIGNALIS is no different and there’s not much more to it than aiming, waiting for a reticle to tighten, and occasionally using a situational secondary tool like a stun prod for quick knockdowns. With limited resources and the possibility of Replikas respawning if you backtrack too often, planning is more essential than killing and encounters always feel suitably high-risk when you’re up against corrupted Replikas – each with move-sets based around their previous civilian or military function. Most have been partially blinded by the infection and shuffle around on patrol, so moving slowly and keeping your distance is the best way to avoid unnecessary firefights. The “Protektor” variants, which can detect you at a greater range and whittle down your health with a swipe or two, are a bigger problem. They still go down quickly enough but you’ll want to use an incredibly limited supply of thermite flares to keep them that way – which means studying the map for important locations and clearing a few safe zones. Boss fights are, thankfully, rare and not just about hoarding powerful ammunition. Instead, the focus is on pattern recognition and timing. These design choices, coupled with three combat difficulty levels and the ability to run past most encounters, meant I never felt the exploration and puzzle elements were stifled by the combat.

SIGNALIS Safe Room

Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up…

Wrapping up, SIGNALIS is an incredibly well-crafted, narratively intriguing, and mechanically satisfying psychological-horror game. It has some much-appreciated modern assists to avoid frustrating players, but the focus on methodical exploration and planning, complex puzzles, and resource management all make it a niche title for modern audiences. If you are part of that niche audience, it’s hard to find many faults – aside from potential accessibility issues or a few times when the auto-aim failed to lock onto a nearby target. At worst, you could argue the gameplay loop is a little too predictable given its adherence to classic designs but, even then, SIGNALIS remains an incredible example of how an indie developer can master a genre in a way dozens of bigger developers have failed to over the last two decades.

A review code for SIGNALIS was provided to gameblur by the publisher.

SIGNALIS (Xbox Series) Review

SIGNALIS (Xbox Series) Review
9 10 0 1
9/10
Total Score
  • Story
    9/10 Amazing
  • Gameplay
    9/10 Amazing
  • Visuals
    8/10 Very Good
  • Audio
    8/10 Very Good

The Good

  • Novel setting and an intriguing narrative
  • Classic survival-horror gameplay and level design
  • Elaborate puzzles and methodical, thoughtful combat
  • Modern assists keep you on track
  • Heavily stylised and disturbing visuals paired with an atmospheric and unsettling soundscape

The Bad

  • No options to tone down some eye-watering visual effects
  • The auto-aim mechanic feels inconsistent
Total
21
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