You wake up from cryosleep suddenly, alone and confused. Alarms are blaring, warning lights are flashing and the ship you’re on seems abandoned. The farther you go, the more signs you see that something went horribly wrong here. And then the monsters come.
It’s an all too familiar scenario. Science-fiction horror likes to follow certain well-worn patterns, but familiarity can be comforting sometimes. For fans of a certain genre, finding a new take on an old standard is a treat. Such is the case with Syndrome, released for PC last month by indie developers Camel 101 Bigmoon Entertainment.
Intentionally old-school with a dogged determination to bring back the horror roots of science fiction, Syndrome follows a familiar path. There are mysterious voices over the comms—people telling you two different stories and to trust only them. Rooms throughout the ship are in complete disarray, bloody trails and dead bodies line the corridors and shutdown bots stand menacingly.
Weapons are scarce, though early on you get a giant wrench tool which can bash heads in a pinch. This isn’t Doom, where running and gunning your way through hordes is the solution. In Syndrome, the monsters are tougher than you and when you can run, you should.
This idea of utilizing the fear associated with powerlessness isn’t new. In recent years, a lot of horror games have played with the concept. Amnesia, Outlast and the superb Alien: Isolation all give players a reason to hide. Alien and Syndrome differ from the others is in that they at least provide the illusion that you can fight, even if the enemy is ultimately one you can’t defeat in a traditional and expected manner (i.e. with guns).
Syndrome takes a lot from those games, but it also owes a huge debt to the original Resident Evil, which introduced the horror of scarcity to every generation of console games since the 1990s. But where Resident Evil intentionally used a limited camera to show your character and bits of the frequently claustrophobic environments, Syndrome is first-person.
As it turns out, trying to navigate the maze-like ship while angry mutated crew members chase you is an effectively stressful affair. The first-person perspective forces you into a constant state of paranoia, making you always look back just in case something jumps out of the darkness. Syndrome’s pacing is intentionally slower than an action game. You don’t get any kind of weapon or see the monsters until at least a half an hour in, and the game moves in fits and starts to keep you nervous.
Another nod to the old days of survival horror games is Syndrome’s use of save points. These odd terminals are spread throughout the ship to record your progress, but they add a sense of urgency to not die because of any progress you might lose. Beyond that, Syndrome takes a lot of its inspiration from classic games like System Shock and the Dead Space series. Movies like Alien and Event Horizon were also clearly on the minds of the developers as they created the suffocatingly dark atmosphere.
Syndrome is an indie game, so a lot of its appeal is the sheer B-movie nature of the production. It actually looks great, but the dialogue, voice acting and general trope-heavy story are all well within SyFy Channel country.
And that’s fine. Syndrome feels so retro that it’s almost refreshing in its earnestness to pay homage to the classics. The game has a genuinely tense atmosphere even if it’s all basically something we’ve seen before. Sometimes the familiar is just what we want; for horror fans, Syndrome delivers a classic fix.