Tension builds like the crack of ice under your feet.
Without knowing how or why you’ve wandered onto a nightmare. You’re alone in the dark, and even though you can’t see them, you hear them. The monsters. They’re waiting, watching. Any moment now they’re going to come for you and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You can hide, but the shadows won’t protect you. They’ll find you anyway. Don’t breathe. Don’t blink. They’re here, and it’s worse than you ever imagined.
Syndrome plunges you into a blood-soaked sci-fi horror that feels like the monstrous offspring of H.R. Giger and the movie Event Horizon. It’s crowded and dark. Although temperature can’t be conveyed literally, it’s easy to sense the oppressive heat and stench of death. Space may be a cold place, but this ship breathes the atmosphere of hell.
Otherworldly screams echo down metal hallways. They seem close as if whatever made that sound just over your shoulder or around the next corner. Each moment that passes a terrible dread builds. You know the bad stuff is coming, but you don’t know when. By the time the monsters finally emerged, I was wound as tight as a guy-wire.
Everything is limited. Health packs, food, ammo, space, even the energy to run. The claustrophobic environment makes it feel as if the air may be limited too. Despite the confined setting, there are a lot of nooks and crannies to explore. I found myself not really wanting to open doors, though, afraid of what abomination may lurk on the other side.
Gameplay is entirely linear. There aren’t opportunities to go off the rails and explore what might happen if you do something other than the next item on your task list. The game does a good job of setting up these walls in a believable way so that it doesn’t break immersion. You may not be able to go to areas before the game wants you to, but the obstacles that prevent it are believable and consistent with the game’s story.
There is a lot of back and forth in this game. Leaving an area is not a guarantee that you won’t have to return. One of my favorite features is the game’s map system, which fits the theme perfectly but also prevents wasting time wandering around lost.
Combat bears a lot of resemblance to other games in the genre, like Doom or DeadSpace. In the game’s tooltips, it suggests that stealth may be preferable to fighting. This should not be perceived as a ‘suggestion.' Going toe-to-toe with the bad guys is a terrible idea. I died a lot. Hiding isn’t easy either, so taking advantage of the save stations on each level is vital to success.
Not every corner is a safe space in Syndrome. Not only because the monsters can still find you, but also because it’s possible to get stuck. In multiple incidents, I got trapped behind objects. I could get in, but I couldn’t get out. As a result, I was forced to nix my progress by reloading the game. If the character could jump, it might solve the issue, since many of the obstacles were waist high.
Collision physics are a little buggy in some areas. Walking into objects at a certain angle would launch me on top of the object. In one incident I landed on top of a wall and could see the entire game map stretched out below me. In another, I ended up fighting a monster from the top of its head. The worst was when I ended up swinging with the corpses hanging from the rafters. I didn’t necessarily want a better look at them, but I got it.
Transitions from cutscenes or between different areas aren't smooth. There is a visible “click” in the image and audio where things don’t line up perfectly. Shifting from cutscenes isn’t terrible, but during gameplay, this can be annoying.
While possibly not a bug, I still classify the following as a problem: object interactions can be very touchy. You not only have to look at just the right spot for the interaction menu to popup, but you also have to be the appropriate distance too. If you’re too close to a computer screen, you may not be able to use it until you back up. This creates confusion since it’s hard to judge where exactly you need to stand. It can also be frustrating when you’re being pursued by monsters, and you can’t touch the screen because you’re too close to it.
Crouching in this game requires the player to press and hold “C.” For me, this was the worst part of Syndrome. As a player who almost always chooses the stealth option, navigating a game at a crawl is not a problem. Needing to hold a single key the entire time, however, is not fun. After a while, it distracts from the ability to enjoy the game. It might be a little more tolerable if it were possible to remap the keys to fit user preferences, but the only option for keyboard users is to change mouse sensitivity. For accessibility purposes, remappable keys should always be the default.
Regarding the storyline, I found it a little distracting how, despite the grisly conditions, the main character handles the situation relatively unphased. He has moments of being freaked out, but then he calms down and gets down to the business of getting things done with almost no transition. The character isn’t setup to be a hero. Everything we learn about him is that he’s mister average, but then he responds to the crisis as someone who has experience dealing with such ghastly circumstances. If he’s a hero, have him be a tough guy. If he’s an everyman, he should spend more time wetting his pants over the Cthulhu-like creatures chasing him.
Regarding gameplay, the character should be able to jump. There are a lot of obstacles in the game. It breaks immersion that the character can’t hop over dangerous objects on the ground. The ceilings aren’t that low.
Syndrome is a sweaty-palmed, gut-clenchingly terrifying game. It capitalizes on body-horror, mechanophobia, and the fear of small, dark spaces. While the core gameplay is solid, the game does have issues which take away from its awesomeness. Despite this, Syndrome makes a strong addition to the survival horror genre.