Camel 101/BIGMOON Entertainment
There have been a whole plethora of survival horror games that have come out in recent years. This new wave of horror was spurred on by the Penumbra series by Frictional games almost a decade ago, which quickly amassed quite a cult following. These in turn inspired Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and Outlast, the latter which of course was featured in thousands of YouTube screaming/whining head videos ad nauseam.
Science fiction survival horror games, in particular, have also seen a resurgence ever since the classic mother of them all, System Shock 2 debuted way back in 1999. Unfortunately, this branch of the horror genre has also seen its fair share of uninspired storytelling. Why do I say that? Well, think about it. How many science fiction survival horror games begin with the player waking up from cryo-sleep after taking a long snooze? You know, where you stumble out of the now generic looking, oblong, cryo-stasis container, and then make a few grunting noises? If there are any other cryo-pods close by, they were either mysteriously empty, or contain the corpses of fellow crew members. Oh, and don’t forget those blood splatters on the floor.
I like to call the above: Lazy, trope-based storytelling. Alien: Isolation, Stasis, SOMA, etc. they all utilized this highly unoriginal wake-up-from-cyro-sleep plot device. Even Fallout 4 fell back on this hackneyed trope, and that’s not even a survival horror game (although it does contain some elements of the genre). I mean, is it that there isn’t much creativity out there, storytelling-wise? Or, perhaps they just don’t realize that every other science fiction horror game out there, begins like this? I would hazard to guess that it’s the former.
Although indie developer Camel 101’s new game Syndrome somewhat fell into this trap of derivative writing, it also features a pretty creepy atmosphere that is good for a few chills.
The game begins with you waking up after a long cryo-sleep and then coughing a bit and looking around the cryo-chamber. All of the other stasis pods are empty (surprise!) and the crew has gone missing. From there, you must navigate throughout the typical creepy abandoned ship, adrift in the vacuum of space, and try to piece what in tarnation happened.
I must admit, Syndrome’s visuals are certainly impressive. Even though you’ve probably seen these boilerplate environments before, you know—the dark grey and brown-hued textures, the hissing pneumatic doors, the swirling red and white emergency lights, Camel 101 still managed to make them look good. However, slick graphics can only take a game so far. Once you get into the meat of the actual gameplay, you begin to see a few cracks in its armor.
Syndrome mainly consists of you walking the main protagonist around the derelict spaceship in order to obtain quests, so that you can find clues as to what happened on board while you were in dreamland. Fair enough, right? Well, only if you’re a fan of seeing the same scenery over and over again. You see, many of the game’s missions involve going from point A to point B, activating something, and then finding out that you have to go back to point A in order to do something you hadn’t noticed before, or interact with a quest objective that wasn’t active before.
While this is more allowable in a science fiction game such as Event (which also had a much more original beginning sequence by the way) where cramped quarters are part of the claustrophobic narrative, it just doesn’t work here. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve done as much backtracking in a game since playing SOMA. The developers seemed to be self-conscious of this issue, so periodically Syndrome will randomly drop some monsters into the mix. I mean, literally teleport them in from nowhere, even if that doesn’t make any logical sense. In this way, I think they wanted to say “see, these same old tired dark corridors and chambers are different now because there are monsters here now.”
To add to repetitious parts, Syndrome’s also has a few glitches that need to be ironed out. On a few occasions, I’d be walking down a hallway, only to suddenly find myself glitched into the ceiling. This also happened whenever I’d reach certain points while crawling through the ship’s vent system, and I played the game on a pretty decent gaming laptop (with GTX 970 Gaming card), but only happened a couple of times. For some, though, this might break any sort of tension or sense of immersion that was built up to then, and also wreck their suspension of disbelief. But as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Since Syndrome deals with typical themes such as science gone wrong and malevolent AI, you’ll encounter many cybernetic grunt-type enemies throughout the game, as well as a few more distinguished monstrosities. When you do, the game will suggest that you go into either a fight or flight mode. Since ammunition for your pistol is scarce (and I mean really hard to find), using your futuristic-looking wrench to club enemies is usually a more viable option when it comes to fighting.
Flight on the other hand, involved you sprinting away from foes as fast as your virtual feet can carry you, and then either jumping into lockers (goodness, these survival horror tropes), or scrunching down behind objects such as desks or cargo containers. Usually, this doesn’t really work out that well. That’s because your enemies have an almost god-like sense of perception. I can’t count how many times I got a good running start on an adversary, hunkered down behind something, realized that there was no way that this thing could possibly detect me, and then watch in astonishment as it proceeded to go exactly to where I was located and tear me to bits.
There are even monsters that are supposedly blind that, at least in theory, you have a chance of sneaking past. You see, in Syndrome’s futuristic spaceship, people still fancy soda-pop bottles that looks like they’re straight out of the 50’s. Oh, and these are scattered all over the ship, right next to the “blind” enemies. The game suggests that you’re supposed to pick these up and throw them somewhere in order to fool the creatures into investigating where the noise came from. But I soon learned, much to my peril, that the monsters had to be in an exact spot for it to not notice you. Many times, I’d thrown a bottle to the opposite side of a room, watched the baddie move over there, and if it weren’t in a specific location, run back over and leap upon my crouching protagonist.
In all, it seems like Syndrome’s developers tried to play it safe by using trite and well-worn concepts, but they did manage to create a pretty scary atmosphere. People not concerned with threadbare, hackneyed narratives, might be pulled in by the game’s glossy presentation and promising setting. But even they may be a little dismayed by the game’s glitches here and there. I’m sure that Syndrome will get patched in the near future so that it’s a more seamless and horrifying experience. Spending more time in development would also have benefited Syndrome, but as it stands, it’s a decent survival game with a great atmosphere and tension.
Syndrome features some seriously impressive visuals. However, you have to have an equally fast gaming PC in order to play it at a decent framerate. So, you may just want to invest in a decent gaming rig:
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