We’ve covered Syndrome before, as a hands-on preview and we’ve spoken to the studio behind it, Camel 101 in some detail about their day to day. Back in mid-June, I concluded with something among the lines of “Syndrome might not revolutionise the genre, but it does seem to offer a standard horror experience for those seeking one”. It’s time to see if the game met or exceeded our expectations. Let’s get this show on the road.
Syndrome: Windows PC [Reviewed], Linux, Mac OS X, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Developer: Camel 101, Bigmoon Entertainment
Publisher: Camel 101
Release Date: 6 October 2016
Price: 22,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Diagnosing the Syndrome
We’ve been over most of the mechanics and the premise during the preview and I’m loathe to retread that ground verbatim, but we’ll do a short recap: Syndrome puts you in the space shoes of Trent Galen, an unfortunate passenger aboard a seemingly deserted space ship. You wake up from cryo-sleep, as one does, and suddenly your radio starts to transmit messages from various survivors aboard the ship which, in classic space horror fashion are surprisingly reserved and cryptic about what’s going on. I understand the concept of build-up, but if the whole ship is overrun with monsters (spoiler the whole ship is overrun with monsters) one would think that’s the first thing a survivor would tell someone about.
So Galen is sent to flip some switches and try and get the ship moving again, making his way through labyrinthine corridors throughout some ship decks while various survivors try to sow the seeds of mistrust and play against each other while you’re just trying to do your job flipping switches. It’s not long before the monsters start showing up. Abominable masses of flesh and cables looking like they’re in constant agony. They pack a punch, but they lack in intelligence and alertness. They’re easy to distract by throwing bottles and various objects you find on the floor, they lose interest in chasing you pretty quickly and don’t have the best eyesight. In a pinch you can fight them, but ammunition for your firearms is somewhat scarce and you’ll often have to rely on your trusty wrench. The monsters are not easy to defeat, taking a lot of timing and lunging forward to strike while retreating or blocking when they swing and they also take quite a bit of punishment, but they don’t exactly use advanced martial arts skills either. Managing your stamina in combat is important, while your health can be replenished via consumables found throughout the ship.
Avoiding the monsters is not as mechanical as it was in something like Amnesia or Alien: Isolation. I rather found it easier to draw them into dead-end rooms, make a quick lap around the desk and dart out and hide, waiting for their short attention span to expire so I can go about my day. During later stages of the game tougher, more aggressive monsters can be encountered and slight tweaks to your tactics may be needed accordingly. The rest of the game consists of traversing the ship (and learning its layout – trust me, you’ll be thankful), activating various systems and acquiring items you need to progress. And of course, you’ll read some logs along the way.
No One Can Hear You Scream
Earlier this year I surmised that for such a low-budget, low-profile project, made by a team consisting of just three permanent members Syndrome looked impressive. I still stand by that: the lighting and environments are not only on par with my arbitrary standards, but the design itself is cohesive and you get a real feel of an 80s sci-fi style space ship. It looks utilitarian, built for function above form, stark and claustrophobic. However, given some more time with the game, I couldn’t help but notice some cracks in the simulation. The monster models don’t look great up close and their animations are a bit janky. They’re usually obscured by shadows and you’re spending a lot of time running away from them, but unlike something like Amnesia which actively discouraged you mechanically from taking a good look at your enemies, Syndrome routinely has you going toe to toe with them. I still had the same issue with the lens flare causing spots on my “camera” as I was moving forward and I turned it off as a consequence. My biggest problem was that in-game items have some sort of bloom artifacting around them which cause a nasty-looking effect sometimes. This is made worse by it being present even around your equipped weapon, right in the foreground.
I have nothing to add to the preview conclusions regarding sound. The voice acting is just a bit lacking in direction but otherwise competent and the sound design is overall satisfying. The atmosphere they are trying to go for is effective but it relies more on tension rather than fear or dread. There are static environmental scares such as cleverly placed decommissioned robots such that you can only see their silhouette against a lit doorway and other things like that. However, I’m sorry to say that the story is lacklustre and forgettable. Not terribly bothersome but it doesn’t seem like telling a tale was the main focus of Syndrome. Additionally, I’m a huge fan of NPC journals in video games and the amount of value they add to the world-building aspect but they just don’t do that here. We get just a general sense that the ship was inhabited before we entered the scene, but we don’t really see who inhabited it. The logs seem to just be here because, at this point, it’s a staple of the genre.
In terms of pacing and game design there is just one thing that bothered me. Unfortunately, it keeps coming back throughout the course of the game. I mentioned it in the preview and thought it was just a means of prolonging the build-up before meeting actual dangers, but it seems like the bulk of Syndrome consists in getting from point A to point B only to find out that point B needs you to go to point C first and then return. It’s not a huge sticking point, but my advice is that you learn the layout of the ship because it’s going to save you a lot of pointless deaths as you go back and forth.
I usually judge games not based on some absurd absolute standard but rather, within reason, on whether they achieve what they’re trying to do and the extent to which they do this given the circumstances. It is because Syndrome is a passion project made by a very small team on a small budget that I don’t call it an outright disappointment, but rather a lacklustre experience. If you’re looking for extreme thrills, high production values and a captivating story Syndrome is not the game for you. If you’re a fan of the general atmosphere of games like Alien: Isolation, System Shock or Dead Space then Syndrome might serve to tide you over. It’s not great, but it’s competently made. Not a revelation, but a welcome addition to not that saturated a genre. With these caveats out of the way, I can recommend it for space thriller fans. I just wish it could have been more