Horror games come in whole variety of forms and styles. From the cheap jumpscares of titles such as Five Nights at Freddie’s to more cerebral games like SOMA, spooky gaming fans have a wide selection to choose from. Signalis tends towards the latter form with an emphasis on complex puzzles and atmosphere over sudden shocks, but it does also have its fair share of those too. Serving as a love letter to survival horror in all its forms, rose-engine has produced a stylish and distinctive title that will leave you scratching your head and hiding your eyes at the same time.
The storyline of Signalis is a deliberately vague and confusing one. The narrative is fractured and fragmented both in terms of chronology and delivery. At times you’ll jump between events with little clarity as to their order whilst messages collected through various notes, logs, and ingame emails add to a narrative that leaves more questions than it answers. This isn’t a criticism – my recent review of Scorn praised the ambiguity of its story – but players looking for a linear story to drive them through their experience will be left disappointed here. The opaque delivery is compounded by a surreal presentation that incorporates both German language aspects and Japanese influenced anime stylings. All of the main information is localised, but having achievements, in-game details and chapter names being in German adds to the otherness of the game’s general feel.
You begin your journey in Signalis as a Replika (an android of sorts) called Elster who awakes on a crashed shuttle and must find her travel partner, the Gestalt (a higher class cybernetic unit) Arianne. Along the way Elster has to battle dangerous enemies, solve complex puzzles and try to figure out the real from the hallucinated in order to put her dreams to rest and be reunited with Arianne. What starts out as a complicated science fiction story becomes more horrific as the dark and oppressive environment and imagery comes into play but, paradoxically, also offers the potential for a touching and emotional love story too. These seemingly opposing threads twist together to simultaneously challenge and entice the player to push deeper into the nightmarish world of Signalis.
rose-engine are very open about the importance of their survival horror influences. Signalis is a game that plays clear and direct homage to genre legends such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. The retro PSX aesthetic used here points to the earliest examples of these and the result is very much a game that feels like a rediscovered gem from the late 1990s. Some of the game’s nods to its forebears are more subtle than others – a room where Moonlight Sonata is played is perhaps a little too on the nose – and longtime genre fans will enjoy spotting the many Easter eggs and references. There is more to the game than simple imitation though, as it offers a uniquely weird, science fiction inflected, and LGBTQ+ take on the conventions of the genre.
Navigating around the world of Signalis doesn’t use tank controls by default (although they are available for that authentic retro experience) so Elster feels pretty responsive to guide. A top-down perspective gives the game a different feel to the fixed camera angles of its influences too, although in practice the gameplay feels closer to the latter.
Combat mostly involves ranged weapons, but is not always the best option and many areas are designed to enable you to avoid or sneak past enemies entirely. Early on avoiding combat is by far the better option as ammo is scarce and enemies respawn after a while anyway. There are ways of keeping them down but these involve other rare resources and so an element of strategy comes into play. By the end of the game you’ll have a mini arsenal of weapons to choose from, and I finished the game with some guns unused but this isn’t because the game is easy. Instead, I found that the limited inventory actively prevented me from experimenting with the different weapons available.
The aforementioned inventory restriction is perhaps the single most divisive mechanic in the game. Earlier survival horrors used limited inventory slots to add to the sense of tension, but also to encourage specific paths between item boxes and puzzle rooms. Later games have made the inventory limits less restrictive or employed a jigsaw puzzle approach, but Signalis is resolutely old school in its implementation. You have six slots for items and this include weapons, ammo, healing items, and key items. The logic of this is difficult to justify as it means a key card takes up the same space as a shotgun, but it is clear that this approach is integral to rose-engine’s vision.
The end result is a lot of backtracking as you balance carrying a weapon, a healing item, ammunition and sometimes a necessary piece of equipment like a flashlight, with leaving room to pick items up. In fairness to the developers, they have responded to early criticism of this restrictiveness with a promise to offer some greater flexibility but the current build results in a lot of repetitive backtracking – busywork that is compounded by the respawning enemies and limited ammo.
While combat is generally optional – and, as described above, usually best avoided – there are boss fights and rooms where enemies have to be put down to enable you to traverse or search them. The mechanics of this are functional but clunky. Elster isn’t a combat android, so takes time to aim shots and rushing will lead to a lot of wasted ammunition. Reloading also takes time whilst the limited inventory means you can’t carry multiple weapons and switch between them that easily. The flaws in the combat are most clearly highlighted in the boss fights which can become a battle of attrition rather than skill.
While the previous paragraphs may have sounded negative, it’s only because it’s important to know what Signalis is doing before you venture into its retro delights. The clunky combat is mostly avoidable and the backtracking is not as arduous as it sounds for the most part (later puzzles that require up to 6 key items notwithstanding) but the real joy of Signalis is the atmosphere and puzzles. While some of the puzzles are extremely traditional (a Tower of Hanoi variant for example), others make innovative use of the radio module Elster finds early on. Recording signals, searching for clues in certain frequencies etc all create a very distinctive feel to the game, and one that benefits from an uncanny fusion of the futuristic and the retro.