|Release Date||October 6, 2016|
Review code provided
Syndrome is a first-person, science-fiction horror game set aboard a starship where everything has gone to hell. Almost literally. You play as a member of the crew awoken from cryosleep to find most of the crew dead. Those that aren’t dead have mutated into zombie-like creatures that now roam the corridors of the ship, ready to kill anything that moves. Including you. Especially you.
As you can probably tell from the plot synopsis, Syndrome’s story is not unique. Amnesiac wakes up on abandoned spaceship. Quickly realises there’s no-one else nearby. Gets contacted by some characters with potentially questionable motivations. Space zombies. I guarantee if you’re a fan of the sci-fi horror genre you’ve heard all of this before. Mostly because I’m confident you’ve played Dead Space.
Not that Syndrome comes anywhere near the quality of Dead Space. Nor is a lack of originality its greatest sin. But a lot of its problems stem from overfamiliarity. Syndrome begins to fall apart before its first hour of gameplay has passed. As you wander the corridors
of the USG Ishimura there is some tension. It’s dark and there are strange, unidentified noises coming from all around you. It builds up a fairly decent amount of tension.
This tension is broken almost immediately as it becomes apparent that nothing is happening, nor is it going to happen for a while. As you wander from room to room, filled with the obligatory walls covered in blood writing and hanging corpses, you’re treated to a very familiar series of scripted events designed to make you feel unsafe. Because these events follow a familiar pattern, however, it actually creates a very real sense of security.You become fully aware that the game is leading to the big reveal of its monster. Anything before that is completely non-threatening.
It takes a full hour of play before the monster finally attacks you head-on. An hour in which absolutely nothing of consequence happens. There’s some exposition levelled towards you by disembodied voices and the game tries to craft an unnerving atmosphere, but it does so with stock horror fare that hasn’t been scary for a long time. Once the game finally gets going and a space zombie tries to actively kill you, you’re confronted with three of Syndrome’s major problems almost simultaneously.
The first problem is the game’s lighting system. While “dark and moody” is a time-honoured staple of horror, it’s helpful to be able to actually see what’s in front of you. A hideous monstrosity can’t scare me if I don’t know what it looks like, or if it’s even there. When the game reveals the first enemy is almost upon you I was met with dramatic dialogue, dramatic music…and total darkness. I didn’t see the thing at all. I only knew it was there because of everything happening around me at the time.
As things went from bad to worse during this particular section of gameplay I was encouraged to make a run for it. I still couldn’t really see what was happening, but made a break for the elevator I had used to get to the deck I was on. Except I got lost and made a wrong turn. The music told me that I was still being pursued so I turned around and saw my pursuer shambling towards me. Very slowly. So slowly I could outpace it by walking. I walked the long way around to the elevator. About halfway there the music stopped and the space zombie had seemingly evaporated.
With the enemies now unleashed upon me, I was quickly treated to the game’s melee combat, which may be amongst the most diabolical first-person combat I’ve ever played. The way combat is supposed to work in Syndrome is with well-timed blocks and counter attacks. The problem is that your enemies give no visual indication that they’re about to hit you, so blocking is basically trial and error. Amazingly, you will take damage from the hit and the wind-up. After quickly realising that blocking wasn’t a viable option I attempted to simply mash the attack button, but the creature outpaced my damage output and I died.
By this point, the experience had well and truly fallen apart. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the game has no checkpoint system. Syndrome uses a save mechanic similar to that of Alien Isolation, whereby the player character puts his arm into a wall terminal to save progress. Syndrome failed to actually tell me this at any point in the 90 minutes I had played the game, so all of my progress had essentially been flushed down the toilet. On my second go through the game’s opening, I realised that these terminals were quite plentiful.
Having to endure the game’s opening a second time made me keenly aware of some additional problems Syndrome has. Unnecessary backtracking is a major issue in this game. Syndrome tries to set its ship out similarly to the Ishimura, with loads of rooms scattered across multiple decks that you’ll need to travel between to access other areas of the ship. The problem is, the backtracking is borderline obnoxious.
At one point the game sent me to the medical bay to retrieve an item, sent me across the entire ship and down a deck to unlock a door, only to tell me the door was locked and I needed to go to the prison to retrieve a keycard to unlock the door. The prison was next to the medical bay. This is not an isolated incident. Syndrome constantly sends you traipsing back and forth through its levels for the most inane of reasons. Apparently, the person who was guiding me through my tasks couldn’t tell that engineering was locked until I walked face first into the door.
I reached a point of no return with Syndrome when I was killed by nothing. There are environmental hazards in the game, such as live wires and steam vents, which will deal considerable damage to you if you’re unfortunate enough to walk into them. While they’re mostly easy to spot, I lost a fair amount of progress by walking past a vent that wasn’t spewing any steam.
I really wanted to like Syndrome. Sci-Fi Horror is a genre that doesn’t get a lot of love and it’s always been a favourite of mine. And for a few minutes there I was quite enjoying myself. Unfortunately, the game falls apart quite spectuacularly. Slowly at first, with its dull opening hour, then quickly as its various technical and gameplay failings are quickly brought to light (unlike its initial antagonists). Combat is missing fundamental components necessary to work as intended, enemies are slow and dimwitted, you’re constantly sends you back and forward, often for no good reason and the game fails to explain how many of its systems work. Like saving. I can’t think of a single part of the game that doesn’t present a major problem, save for the graphics, which look quite nice.
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