During Rezzed 2016—a couple of months ago, though it feels a lot longer—I played a variety of games but only one of them was a 1st person horror set in a derelict spaceship. You know System Shock 2 and Event Horizon have special places in my heart, and I love the idea of a character waking up on a ship once filled with life and laughter and now just knee deep in hell. Death and suffering around them, with people they once knew and served with now turned into hideous abominations hunting the character for their blood, or flesh, or both. Or perhaps they seek to indoctrinate them, to turn them to the cause of their dread masters.
Yeah, this is my kind of Sci-Fi Horror, the one in an oppressive environment, a metal coffin floating aimlessly through space. So with that said, you should understand how quickly a game like Syndrome grabbed me back in April. I’m, admittedly, a scaredy-cat. As much as I love this setting and as much as I enjoy watching and playing horror media, I scare very easily in them and while I don’t dive for a cushion the instant something scary pops up, I do tend to pause or even quit games and films midway through a session to calm down and relax before I tackle them again. Sadly, recording previews doesn’t give me that freedom. Because I’m doing the work for all of you, to show you the games that developers send me to test out and give my feedback on, I can’t just say “Nope!” but instead have to push on and face the fears, which is the only way to make it through alive and not soiling your trousers.
So, what is Syndrome about? If you didn’t get the gist of it from my ode to this subgenre, it’s about a guy waking up from stasis on a ship that is occupied by rogue AI and the now monstrous crew. The ones that aren’t shambling monstrosities looking for you for hugs and nibbles are shooting people on sight or scheming to screw you over. Because in this kind of game, even the good guys are bastards and the bad guys are in a category of their own, one I named a long time ago but can’t say because I keep my language clean in the articles. To give you a hint, it starts and ends with the letter ‘d’.
Syndrome starts out like others in this genre, with your character awakening from stasis in pitch darkness. From the moment you open your eyes, the red lights and alarm claxon tell you that something is wrong. There are no other sounds around you or any people. The first danger is from a solar flare heading your way, so you need to close the blast shields. After you do you move on to the floor’s lobby and find just how badly things are going. There are dead everywhere, turned off robots and you can hear growling in the distance. There is blood on the walls, the last writing of some hapless victim—though I wished people understood once and for all that when blood dries it turns brown, so even if it makes it look like feces, you need to make the lettering brownish!
At this stage in the game there aren’t any dangers and this time around I wasn’t scared but I still appreciated the atmosphere. It’s the oppressive kind, where you feel as if anything might come out at you, though the game does not ever resort to jump scares. It doesn’t need to, you’ll be whimpering on your own without Syndrome ever throwing anything at you. At least I was. In the video I recorded for this I was a bit more confident because I knew when things were going to go badly, but as a believer in the “face your fears” thing, I decided I’d go melee with one of the creatures. It ended badly for it but also for me. You see, where in other games you might time a creature’s attack and hit them when there’s an opening, I couldn’t do that in Syndrome. Every time I hit the monsters, they hit me, and I never saw an attack animation out of them, except for the one when they kill you. Some timing to their attacks, the ability to move back and then close up for a kill would help a lot. I understand the point is to avoid these enemies, but if you’re going to give me the chance to fight them, at least make it possible for me to do so effectively. With resources scarce in Syndrome, at least according to the developers—I have yet to find a gun or something similar—I’m probably going to be going medieval on their hineys for most of the game. I don’t believe in running from the monsters if you can face them. By the end of my session I wasn’t afraid of the monsters anymore, not of their look at least. I feared the damage they inflicted though.
I mentioned there weren’t jump scares and that’s not exactly true. There are a couple but they’re of the harmless variety, where it’s an environmental scare and not a monster jumping out of a vent like they did in Dead Space, a maneuver that game ran into the ground after they beat the horse to death.
Much like in System Shock or Dead Space, in Syndrome you have an inventory and you can carry an assortments of bits and bobs, some consumable and others equip-able, but while the window looks neat, it doesn’t show much in the way of information about the items you’re carrying. This is particularly bad when it comes to the consumables, as you don’t know how much health they’ll restore. As for equipment, I couldn’t figure out how to equip a bone-saw I found and didn’t get anything from the inventory UI. I hope they improve on that as development progresses.
Visually Syndrome is stunning though I discovered a number of texture glitches, which kind of ruins the effect the rest of the environment has. It breaks the immersion and dissolves the atmosphere. I also experienced frequent FPS drops, particularly on Level 4 of the ship, to the point where my screen was freezing for a dozen or so seconds. As I mention in the video, I don’t know if that’s because of my computer or because they haven’t optimised that section of the game properly. As this is a very early demo still, I’m not going to bash them on this, but I do point it out, as it is a crucial thing to work on.
Overall, I liked the shape of Syndrome so far, and as I mentioned in the video, I’m going to follow the game as development continues. It has the potential to be a phenomenal horror game. It already has a special place in my heart by breaking off from that ‘helpless’ trend of horror gaming we’ve been stuck on since Amnesia: The Dark Descent came out. You don’t have to fight the monsters here, but just by giving me the option to do so, you’re making me a happy—and very scared—player.