Science fiction settings and horror usually go well together. The future is an uncertain place, full of promise and hope but also full of terrifying recklessness where even (and often especially) the most intelligent sacrifice all reason and common sense for the sake of progress. As a society, we continue to progress despite the imminent dangers of our own carelessness. Sometimes in that quest for progress, we make video games about that fear, an ironic gesture given the technological prowess demanded in modern games. Sometimes still we make terrible games about that subject and put any fears about robot overlords to rest. If Syndrome has taught me anything, it is that computers have not yet reached the levels of intellect needed to challenge us or even enslave us. They are however much luckier than we are.
Syndrome is a science fiction horror survival game nearly indistinguishable from any other. You are trapped on a ship full of horrifying creatures and you must escape. Along the way, you make contact with other supposed survivors and find weapons and tools to aid you. In some instances, you’re better off just hiding until the monstrosities leave you alone. And by some, I mean the majority. Syndrome is one of those horror titles which equips you with weapons and then makes the correct decision to make sure you can’t simply rely on your weapons all the time. It is comparable to Alien: Isolation in this and several other ways. You frequently have to travel through vents, the environments are similar, and even the interactions you have with other characters are somewhat familiar. Unfortunately, it did not borrow enough from Alien: Isolation to actually be fun to play.
The combat is objectively the best part of the game. Not because it is mechanically interesting but simply because it is combat befitting of a horror title. You can find weapons as advanced as plasma grenades, and you can use them on most enemies and they will eventually die. The problem is most of the time this will alert any other enemies and your ammo is extremely limited. Good luck finding any bullets after you empty your SMG clip on a single enemy. You can also try to beat them to death with your wrench, but this is just a good way to get yourself killed when facing some foes. That type of combat is perfect in this setting. It instilled the sort of panic and helplessness that separates a horror game from just an action game with some jump scares.
The monsters themselves, in terms of design, are also interesting. They are not the most original in the universe and still pretty much just resemble zombies, but they have enough detail added to them to differentiate them and make them fit the story. It’s a good thing too because you’re going to see a lot of them for very long periods. After a while, their genuinely creepy designs don’t seem so creepy, mostly from watching them pace back and forth right in front of the doorway you have to go through. They do that because, for whatever reason, the pathfinding in Syndrome seems to be randomized to an absurd degree. It’s hard to explain in words, but remember back in the day when enemies would run into walls while just walking around casually? Usually, when this happened it was a glitch or maybe they didn’t spawn properly. In Syndrome, it’s an epidemic. Monsters will casually run in place in open doorways, randomly change directions for no apparent reason, attempt to phase through walls, and generally behave as if they’ve never walked before. It isn’t as noticeable in the slower enemies but there was one enemy in particular that did this in the most annoying way.
The one “blind” enemy is a lumbering beast who will never see you but can hear you if you take two steps a room over from him. He is very fast and unless you can get out of the room you foolishly made a noise in before he gets in there, then you will have to run for a vent or accept death because he will chase you relentlessly. He also has the most broken pathfinding in the game. Maybe it is because he’s so huge that he has a difficult time walking through walls, but even without that trying to get past him in some sections is annoying. The game presents a mechanic to try and help with this, by throwing objects like bottle across the room to distract him. This mechanic has two issues. The first is that it barely works since it’s hard to judge how far a throw will go and it often doesn’t distract for very long. Second, one of the hardest sections with these creatures has no such objects. In Act 3 there is a section on a floor littered with standard zombies, a type of two-headed zombie that apparently has enhanced vision since he could always spot me from the other side of a dark room, and not one but two blind monsters. Enter this section with no ammo (which it is not hard to do at all) and you better take a day off work because you’re gonna be stuck there for a while.
In general, the enemies in Syndrome are either far too easy to pass or far too unforgiving and there is no happy medium. It isn’t like Alien: Isolation where having an enemy like the Xenomorph seems justified. There was only one of her, and you could foreseeably prepare and hide if she showed up. Syndrome has many enemies that will essentially kill you if they catch you (the “blind” monsters just need to hit you twice, and the two-headed ones three times, assuming you have full health), and there is no hide mechanic. That alone is baffling. Most survival games have some sort of mechanic that encourages players to hide in lockers, trash cans, under desks, whatever is the most logical for the setting.
The only place you can “hide” in Syndrome are the vents, which are less a hiding place and more just inaccessible to the monsters. It almost feels like you’re exploiting their stupidity by dashing to a vent every time they catch you. Fortunately, they’ll fail to catch you as long as you keep moving, but that removes some of the tension and make the enemies more of an annoyance than a threat. More importantly, it’s not really fun, especially when you now have to sit and wait for them to walk back and forth another hour so you can try again. Overall, the game isn’t hard – there are some sections where it is ridiculously easy to trick the programming or even just make a mad dash from the door to the vents. One later part I was able to get the enemies stuck in a hall and then walk off and complete my objective. It only seems difficult when they just flood the area with a ton of enemies and few ways to deal with them.
The story is for the most part standard, and unfortunately reminiscent of Stasis. You awake on a ship with barely any memories and suffering from odd and violent visions. You are contacted by an officer but then shortly after by a different survivor who tells you not to trust them, and starts walking you through how to fix the ship up. No one ever explains what happened except in vague warnings, so you have to piece it together yourself until the end. Syndrome is not quite as bad as Stasis in terms of the writing and voice acting. Your player character here doesn’t narrate everything, just a lot of things. Everything story related is fairly boring and not very deep. It isn’t even worth it to remember character names because there isn’t much point. There are e-mails and messages left that tell you the story of the ship, but after reading a few it just got familiar. For some reason, horror games saw what Outlast did with telling the lore through files and notes, but got everything wrong about why those were interesting. Syndrome‘s basically amount to the crew’s bland diary entries, but few actually reveal anything more than “everyone went crazy”.
Your “missions” are so bland and straightforward you’d think it were an MMO. Nearly all of them amount to “Go to this place, find out it is closed or broken, go to another place, backtrack until you find the alternative entrance, get chased by monsters, go back to the initial place to fix and/or open it”. Unfortunately, the game requires you to go through the motions too so even if you try to skip the backtracking, the game will block off the obvious solution until you actually walk up to the door you already know is locked so your character can go “Oh no! It’s locked! What do I do!”
There are a ton of smaller issues that make all of this feel worse. The first is that your settings do not save, not only between opening and closing the game but even between floors and after you die. Essentially, your settings are reset every time the game must load something. The default settings would not be so bad, except Syndrome has a post-processing addiction, so you need to either get used to excessive lens flare and artificial dirt obscuring your view or remember to change it all every time you load a new section. That is one of the smaller tiny issues. One of the bigger tiny issues is the lack of save points. This is another system taken from Alien: Isolation, this one pretty blatantly – there are panels in certain places where you must stop to save but are not necessarily safe while doing so. The issue is in Alien: Isolation there are lots of saves and they were placed in logical areas. In Syndrome, there is one (or in one case two) per deck and many of them not in logical places at all. A logical place in this games situation would be right by the elevator on every floor. There are two main floors where this is the case, and the rest they are placed somewhere almost random, often surrounded by enemies. There are no lights or indicators so it can be very easy to just walk by them.
In fact, the game never tells you they exist at all. There is no real tutorial for this game, except to tell you what button to use on items you found. There are no key binding options in the menu, so you have to just press keys and find out which one does which through trial and error. Not once are you told where to save your game – fortunately there aren’t any monsters in the very beginning so I was able to figure that part out myself. On top of all that, there are a lot of old fashioned bugs, way more than you’d expect from a pre-release title. Sometimes after loading a save the sound effects will not work properly (including the sounds that the monsters make), and on not one but two different occasions, I fell through the floor. Between that and the enemies running into the walls, you’d think this was meant to be a retro title.
Taking all that into consideration, there is a saving grace besides the combat: the game does indeed feel scary at times. It might be the design of the monsters that’s enough to induce stress or the weird, mechanical sounds they make. It might be the dread of mentally preparing to run for it if they happen to be behind a corner. It might also just be the anxiety from having to just sit and watch them walk right past you a dozen times and wondering if they are ever going to bug out and suddenly spot you. Whatever it is, there is a real fear while playing. That feeling of slowly losing your sanity can be jarring as well, and is by far the more interesting story mechanic. It’s unfortunate that it really doesn’t matter when most of the game is annoying and frustrating. Top that off with bugs and the fact that everything that does work just feels like a rehash of every other sci-fi horror game ever, and you start running out of reasons to actually finish the game. If Syndrome is a vision of the future, it is a world where mechanical zombies aren’t smart enough to see you right next to them but you’re apparently not smart enough to actually hide. That sounds like a world where we might have more to fear than we think.
Syndrome was reviewed on PC (Affiliate) via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.More About This Game
It is a legitimately scary game, but the bugs, bad design choices, bland story, and obnoxious enemies overshadow that. It is hard to tell how much is the game scaring you, and how much is just frustration.
- Decent Combat System
- Genuinely Frightening At Times
- Enemy AI is Random and Frustrating.
- Mediocre Storytelling
- Bugs Straight out of the 90s.
- Poorly Implemented Horror Mechanics