Hallowed Be Thy Game: SIGNALIS is a Dark Love Story Caught Up in a Retrofuture Survival Horror Masterwork
(Editor’s note: Let’s face it — most metalheads are a buncha nerds. To that end, Hallowed Be Thy Game is a weekly feature here on MetalSucks where we’ll highlight some of the metal-as-fuck board/video/tabletop role playing games we’re playing or have played in the past.)
Survival horror is a genre I’m admittedly not keen on and therefore haven’t played very many titles except a few of the classics, but SIGNALIS really made me want to dig into more of it.
SIGNALIS is… hard to explain without spoiling key elements. At its core, it’s a survival horror game styled in a dark retro sci-fi/cyberpunk anime aesthetic with a visual style that both looks old school yet retains some of today’s more modern sleekness. It’s chiefly made by a two person development team called rose-engine, who handled all all of the game design, animation, illustration, writing, and programming themselves. Only the sound design and music were outsourced.
If you grew up with PlayStation games – especially ones like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Parasite Eve – I can’t imagine you not liking this. Just stop here and play it, as the rest of this article has some minor spoilers. I went in blind and so should you.
Anime fans will find some inspiration was taken from Neon Genesis Evangelion with its off-putting full-screen text cards, rapid cuts to disturbing and often violent shots, and sci-fi theme. To make matters stranger, much of the text in the game is either in German or Japanese kanji, though the important bits are in whatever primary language you choose. It makes sense – rose-engine are a German dev team and the story revolves around a dystopian, fascistic nation named Eusan with some unsubtle retrofuturistic Third Reich aesthetic to their uniforms and propaganda.
In the game, you take the role of a simple technician Replika android built to serve your nation, with your memories and personality copied from a source Gestalt (human). All Replikas mentally come from Gestalts, handpicked for each type to best suit their job or function. You play as Elster, a stoic, female-presenting Replika searching for something or, as you soon find out, someone. Navigating SIGNALIS requires you to manage scarce resources, solve puzzles, fight former Replikas who became monstrosities, and deal with an increasingly perplexing, unsettling world as you dive deeper.
SIGNALIS drips with a keen sense of isolation. Even though you find sentient and friendly (or at least neutral) fellow Replikas throughout the game, their existence is an outlier and not one that necessarily brings comfort. Most don’t help you, just help highlight how truly alone you are. Areas you traverse are in various states of disrepair with broken lights, flooding, and unmanageable messes blocking your path. It all reminds me of the crushing loneliness you can find in a lot of post-metal music like SUNDR’s Solar Ships.
There’s never a moment where you feel at ease – even save rooms are menacing, with the computer screen’s red glare, deafening silence, and the knowledge that you’re marooned on a metaphorical island. You know you’re completely flanked by hostility on all sides and the only way out is to face the terror head-on (or just dodge and run away). A sizable chunk of the middle of the game, you don’t even get a map to help you remember what and where things are – hope your memory’s good or you have a pen handy.
The music is minimalist, often driven by somber keys and moaning ambience. Composed by 1000 Eyes and Cicada Sirens, it’s a great listen outside of SIGNALIS’ anxious, brutal world. Some tracks throb with a foreboding industrial feel like “Pneumatic” or “Mynah”, or reek of corruption and decay like “Misremembered.” “The Promise,” a pivotal track in the game, even interpolates Frédéric Chopin’s “Prelude Op. 28 No.15” for a particularly dejected, emotional moment. It’s not the most metal soundtrack you could spend your time with – Hesher’s got that covered already – but it is undeniably heavy and dense.
If I have any critiques of the game, it’s that the weapon aiming can be very finicky. Raising a gun to fire at an approaching creature only for the sights to line up on one several yards away was frustrating and left me taking unnecessary damage. Survival horror can get away with some jankiness like this because you’re never supposed to feel secure or powerful, so you’re not afforded the precision of a sleek shooter game or graceful movement from a character action game.
For real diehards, there’s even an option to turn on the type of “tank” controls you would have gotten in old school Resident Evil games. The very limited inventory also seems to be a sticking point with fans – but I didn’t mind it because it forced me to strategize.
In the end, SIGNALIS is a story of futility and what we do for love, even if it means abject destruction and facing intensifying horrors beyond comprehension. It’s about the things that push us beyond comfort and boundaries, and what it means to lose identity in that journey. You won’t get many answers, you won’t give the world its sunshine again, but you should feel satisfied on some level with what you’re presented regardless of what ending you get (there’s four for the record). At minimum, you’ll play a superb, unique game that could very well be one of your favorites. That’s the case with me and SIGNALIS – it’s one of the best games I’ve played this year, perhaps ever.
SIGNALIS is available on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC via Steam, Xbox Store, and Humble Games Collection. It’s yet another offering on Xbox Game Pass for consoles and PC, so you don’t have much to lose except your sanity!