by Johnathan Irwin
reviewed on PC
Dead In Space
If videogames have taught me anything about life in space, it's that it's going to go one of two ways. *inhale* It's going to be a mostly-successful endeavour by humanity and/or other species that drives major advances in technology and herald the dawn of epic space battles until an ominous and distant threat will eventually unite all walks of life *breathe* OR it's going to be incidents of extreme isolation where everyone but you has died and there is something trying to murder you. *exhale* Syndrome is the latter.
Following a similar vein to that of Alien: Isolation - still the crowned champion of space horrors to me, despite its shortcomings - I was very much looking forward to playing a game that reminded me so much of that scary classic.
The game, much like Alien: Isolation and Dead Space, absolutely nails it in terms of environment. From the first moment you emerge from cryosleep, you're introduced to the floating casket in the darkness of space. Desolation can be found in each dark, metal hall. There are very few sparks of hope, though plenty from flickering lights and the soft glow of consoles that expose messages written in blood upon the wall. Outside of the little human contact you'll have, it is up to the player to traverse the dangerous derelict vessel. It wouldn't be a horror title without the element of danger of course.
Let me say that again; it wouldn't be a horror title without the element of danger. I had to reemphasize that because, Syndrome nails that too. The game is not necessarily in-your-face about the threat immediately. Rather, it eases the player into the abyss and once you're in, you're left to a very few devices for survival. The rest relies on your cunning. You have firearms, but ammo is scarce; it's often better to just hide, or sneak away from the warped denizens of the vessel. Outright running is ill advised.
It's often far too risky to get a really good look at the creatures, but when you do you'll see a mesh of mechanics and organics that can only be described as an outright nightmare. Some creatures are reminiscent of the Strogg from the Quake series, while others struck me as SOMA, and the most terrifying one I saw appeared to be an actual robot that had torn off human flesh from someone who may or may not have been alive at the time and was now wearing it as an extra skin. That might be a detail spoiled, but honestly seeing it will be just as stomach turning seeing it for the first time without prior knowledge.
The Lost And Forgotten In Space
Yet where the game excels in the aspects of tension building, environment, and the general feel of a survival-horror it lacks in one very important area: a captivating narrative.
Imagine waking up to find the majority of your friends and colleagues dead. Terrifying right? Now, imagine your character to have barely any personality at all, and that what is there only serves as a plot device to push forward some unseen force controlling you. Equally terrifying right? A good horror title strives to make you feel attached to your character to immerse you more in the struggle for survival. Sadly, I feel that Syndrome falls far short on this front.
The plot is largely forgettable and has just enough story to remind you that there - is - a plot hidden somewhere. There are files for the player to be found and read which fill in the gaps leading up to the incident that caused all the mayhem, as well as shortly after. If there's one thing that's hard to mess up in a horror game, it's backstory fed through a variety of readables and Syndrome is no exception. Many of the files offer mundane, uninteresting stories but all of them do add to the feeling that people were living here shortly before the protagonist awoke.
The protagonist, Trent Galen, may as well be a nameless MacGuffin though. He serves more to further the plot of those he's in contact with than to establish his own background, motivations and ambitions. But perhaps that's too harsh - there are a few moments where Trent shines through as a character but these are usually very short lived. I prefer my protagonists to have a little more substance to them - I don't want to just survive, I want a meaningful character to survive as well.
Drifting Through The Void
Syndrome isn't perfect, but you know what? It's an enjoyable game. It's got most of what makes a good horror title going for it, I just wish that the characters and the plot measured up to the game in that aspect. Sprinkle on a myriad of technical issues ranging from small sound glitches to getting stuck in a console screen necessitating a restart, and what you have is a rough cut gem. Anyone looking purely for tension and scares could, and should, check this out. Anyone hoping for scares - and - a captivating plot will likely be disappointed.
Tense atmosphere, frightening jump scares, plenty of fight-or-flight moments
MacGuffin main character, forgettable plot