Syndrome looks the part, with quality visuals and an outstanding sound design. Unfortunately this is a case where the presentation belies a game that has loads of potential, but in the end winds up an average-at-best series of missed opportunities.
Things get off to a really solid start. I absolutely love Dead Space and similarly themed games, so go ahead and drop me into a doomed spaceship with no idea what happened to my crew. Sure, the setup has been done to death, but in the right hands it can still be an awesome experience, with the science fiction setting giving the developers all of the freedom in the world to craft quality scares and unique creatures to contend with.
It helps that like Alien: Isolation, we have an outstanding sound design, with boatloads of creepy ambient sound that helps to keep tension high. The visuals are really quite good as well, shifting between different fields of view and playing with light and shadows in a way that can manipulate your sense of safety even when there is no immediate threat. It is clear that the team at Camel 101 is a talented one that has produced a game with a lot of visual and audio polish. This is an indie studio that absolutely knows how to dress their title up for the prom. They also deserve kudos for knowing how to stage a good jump scare. This is a genre I don't avoid - in fact I gravitate towards horror every chance I get. As a result, it is often hard to get me to jump - but Syndrome succeeded in getting me to do so several times.
However, despite the good initial impression all of the above makes, the gameplay itself is a less consistent performer. From poor level design makes backtracking a regular occurrence, but seldom does anything with it. In a game like this, going back to what is familiar should be the perfect spot for the developers to play with their food a bit, and breed doubt and fear in the gamer as subtle nuances are different. Generally though, it amounts to running around because the stages are not actually big enough to support the full game, so time is padded with doubling or tripling back on where you have already been.
Additionally, controls are stiff and unresponsive. Combat is slow and often unresponsive. Stealth is borderline broken at times, with no clear idea on when you are safe or not. Enemies rely on surprising you, because frankly they are dumb as a brick and generally slow, draining the tension out of combat. In fact, the environment was more dangerous than the monsters themselves most of the time. Hit detection and environment interactions are questionable, such as confirming actions on terminals.
The other issue is how paper thin the narrative is. While Dead Space is clearly an inspiration here, both in the way your protagonist can at least fight back (even if he controls poorly) and with the deserved ship / horrible alien monster setup. However, Dead Space was thick with story, with everything from characters talking to wonderfully staged scenes, audio logs and more. There is a mythology, a world building that takes place around our hero, but also a more nuanced explanation of who he is and what motivates him beyond just simple survival. Syndrome paints a far less interesting picture. Sure, the need to survive is still there, and that serves as a key motivator in any game - but in a horror game some extra narrative is always welcome, and here it just is not very compelling.
Syndrome has all of the makings of a good game, and Camel 101 should be proud of the graphics and audio design. They nail the look and atmosphere they were going for here, but unfortunately Syndrome is hampered by a shallow story and janky controls. It is a bad sign when I consider vents and wires on the ground more dangerous than my enemies, creating an experience that threatens more scares than it actually delivers. With the good and bad working so hard to counteract one another here, Syndrome winds up simply being an average horror game in the end.
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Article by Nick