Hi. This is a review of around four hours of the game. I would have played more, but there was a bug which stopped my progress and by that point I’d just about made my mind up anyway. Therefore I cannot pass judgement on the ending or on some of the later game monsters, at least one of which I know exists. Thank you. And now, back to our scheduled reviewing.
There are two things that no-one can do in space. First is hearing you scream. Second is not bringing quite obviously evil artifacts on board, and subsequently turning all of the crew into gruesome body horror abstractions.
Tapping into our irrational fear of the unknown—and also into our slightly more rational fear of space zombies—Syndrome is another game concerned with alien viruses, and some of the complications associated with alien viruses.Just from the store page for Camel 101‘s intergalactic caper, it appears that Syndrome is a cut above some of the other, shlockier fare offered by indies. Those games which ask the question “just how little effort can a developer put into a game?”, and go on to answer with the truly horrifying “this little effort.” It’s a store page replete with plaudits, boasting those golden wreaths which you usually associate with the Cannes film festival. An arthouse darling amidst a swamp of sub-Rob Zombie jumpscare twaddle. And, to be fair, Syndrome actually is better than much of the creatively bankrupt rubbish with which it shares storespace.
But it isn’t much better.
The beginning of Syndrome has you waking from cryogenic sleep in a ship which has been cast adrift and is seemingly abandoned. Not to go all Morrissey on you, but stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. In what will be a running theme for this review, Syndrome is not a game that likes to stray too far into the realms of the original, and its plot is no exception. Not to say that’s a problem, mind. Games don’t need to be genre-defining to be great, and even a horror with as trite a set-up as Syndrome’s can redeem itself if there are sufficient scares to be had.
But there really aren’t.
Syndrome looks to put itself amongst games like Alien: Isolation and, more tangentially, Amnesia: The Dark Descent as a psychological experience which shuns bombastic set-pieces in favour of a quieter, more subdued kind of sustained anxiety with monsters that are ever present, but not always there. Except when it doesn’t. Other times, Syndrome likes to take a more Dead Space-y approach, filling your ears with discordant violins and stirrup-busting bangs as a creature is displayed beneath a literal spotlight, like some kind of game show star prize. That’s not to say that a horror game can’t take elements from both schools of thought—all three of Dead Space, Alien: Isolation and, though admittedly in it’s weaker moments, Amnesia did so—but there shouldn’t be such a jarring disparity between the two.Syndrome consists of long, stealthy escapades wherein you attempt to avoid the sound-responsive AI, interspersed with brief hallucinogenic episodes. Said episodes are largely made up of jump scares where something happens suddenly and is accompanied by a big bang or a crescendo of music apropos of nothing. These either fall flat, or are successful insofar as they provoke the kind of reaction one would expect from a loud noise quickly emerging from near-silence. It’s a reaction that can be adequately replicated by hiring one man, arming him with a pair of cymbals and giving him free reign to clash them together behind unsuspecting members of the public. That man’s not terrifying—he’s just a dick.
When not occupied with the crash, bang, wallop schtick, Syndrome attempts to ratchet up the tension in a manner which tiptoes on the border of subtlety for a while, before swiftly hotfooting it away from said border as quietly brooding ambiance and softly flickering lights give way to several thousand dead bodies hanging from the ceiling. That’s only a little bit of an exaggeration—if you turn a corner, there’s a decent chance you’ll find another batch of unfortunates dangling from above. The first time you see it, it’s quite creepy; the second time you feel they’re pushing it; come the eighteenth or so time, your mind wanders to practicalities like how the unfortunates got there, or how there’s apparently so much rope on a spaceship, or how the monsters are able to tie knots of sufficient strength to hold a body’s weight. Are these zombie cub scouts in space? That could work. Unlike the creatures in Syndrome, that could actually work.
Oh, right, the creatures. The monsters in Syndrome look like the creations of an angsty five-year-old loaded up on E-numbers and crayon nibblings. A bit of vague robotics shoved in the arm there, a tube here, a thingy there, a wotsit here and, hey presto, we’ve got ourselves some existential dread! Except, no, we haven’t.
The crux of the problem came when, a little way into the game, after successfully retrieving something I can’t remember for a purpose I’ve since forgotten, the familiar voice of Jimmy—general guide and purveyor of brief expositional snippets—emanated from the walkie-talkie, warning of a creature nearby. As we are left to cower behind a nearby table, Jimmy warns us to not move a muscle. The creature is approaching the room, he tells us. It’s nearby. It’s at the door. It’s about to enter. Don’t move—whatever you do, don’t move.And then the creature enters.
In all my years of playing them, I have never laughed so hard during a video game.
The thing that bursts through the door is blind and can only react to your presence if you make a sound. It’s a mangled mess of flesh and metal, all protracted limbs and quasi-pincers, twisted and intertwined in a manner which should be instantly repulsive and horrifying.
The illusion is shattered, however, by the simple fact that it looks like a giraffe.
Maybe it’s the lankiness; maybe it’s the slightly out-of-proportion neck; maybe it’s the stiff way the creature entered the room, like a Neanderthal emerging from an ice block, like a hellish game show prize on a conveyor belt, like, most damningly, a giraffe. And once that thought of cowering from a giraffe enters, it never, ever leaves.
Not to point out the obvious, but giraffes are not threatening. They’re the least threatening animal that you’re likely to visit at a zoo. Even if someone stuffed a giraffe into a petting zoo, it would still be the least threatening animal there. Consequently, rather than being frightened of the giraffe thing, the immediate reaction is to pose for a fun photo where you’re feeding it a handful of foliage.
The monster problem continues with the zombies that populate the hallways. While there are doubtless hours of scintillating conversation to be had about what makes a zombie a zombie, there really is little doubt that these fit the bill. They grunt menacingly, they look all icky and they’re slow.
About as slow as I’ve ever seen any animate body, and a few inanimate objects, move. You know that horrible dream where there are monsters chasing you and, try though you might, you can’t run away from them? Imagine that dream but with the roles reversed—you running entirely unencumbered, looking over your shoulder to see a phalanx of monsters in the distance shimmying along almost imperceptibly. If you’re thinking that wouldn’t be in the least bit scary, then you’re reviewing the game for me.
It all adds up to the kind of humdrum tedium which is fatal for any game, let alone an ostensible horror. And it’s a real shame, because there’s nothing particularly egregious about Syndrome, save for the odd decision taken here and there. It’s biggest problem lies not in its execution, but in its lack of ambition.This shouldn’t be seen as a hatchet piece, because this isn’t a game without plaudits. Syndrome is visually fine, making good use of rendering effects to complement its decor. Though if you’re one to get annoyed by bloom or film grain, they might not be a wholly welcome addition but, in fairness, they can be turned off. The audio is a particular strength, with slight murmurs and reverberations used in a sure-handed manner which belies the rest of the game. But then other times, monster roars erupt from empty rooms with a clarity that suggests the zombies have gotten hold of the tannoy system, so it’s not all good news on the sound front, either.
The overall picture here is one of a game staggering from scene to perfunctory scene like an underfunded and hastily constructed House of Horrors. Whenever stepping into the elevator after finishing a level, I always expected to emerge to the sight of an unenthusiastic teen muttering ‘I hope you enjoyed your ride’ and directing me to the cotton candy stall.
More than the silly creatures, more than the ineffective jump scares, it’s the ‘oh, this again’ of it all which hammers the final nail in the coffin. From gameplay to plot, from setting to scares, Syndrome is a game which never dares to step away from precedent, leaving the player to think about how they’ve seen this done, and done better, countless times before.