Signalis is Best Played With All the Lights On

Signalis Preview

My first impression of Signalis was, in a single word, disquieting. The menu screen consisted of a close-up of a deep blue pixelated eye that followed my mouse around. In the background, a siren-like tone repeated every few seconds over soft music, creating an eerie soundscape. Reflected red light gleamed inside the iris, suggesting an industrial environment. The whole scene was calculated to generate unease and it worked like a charm. That statement also applies to the rest of the game.

The first time I sat down to play this title, I did so in a dark room. I learned my lesson—the next time I played Signalis, I turned every light in the house on. Without that, I may not have finished the preview build, and I’m so glad I did. Signalis is shaping up to be something extraordinary. Legendary director Guillermo del Toro introduced Signalis at Summer Game Fest 2021, and I can see why. Warning: both the game and its trailer contain flashing lights.

Retro Survival Horror With a Lovecraftian Twist

Signalis is an old-school survival horror game in terms of graphics, mechanics, and overall presentation. Think a combo of the original Silent Hill and Resident Evil, if they took place in a dystopian far future. Signalis is the story of Elster, a technician Replika–a robot, in other words–searching for her lost dreams. This preview plunged right into the action. I was treated to a lovely pixel art animation of Elster waking up in a capsule before being handed full control. Needless to say, I spent a few minutes wandering claustrophobic hallways while figuring out the controls. Then I walked through the wrong door and discovered a shadowy figure swaying slowly back and forth in a darkened lab. It was a hell of a first impression.

Elster, otherwise known as LSTR-512, is part of the Penrose-512’s two-man crew. Unfortunately, the scout ship collided with an unknown planetary body, damaging critical systems. The pilot is missing. Also, the ship is now full of twitching screeching monsters and mysterious bloodstains. Oh, and it’s freezing outside.

A darkened hallways featuring one of Signalis' enemies doubled over in the corner closest to the camera. Elster is pointing a gun at it. The monster's silhouette is highlighted with a red targeting reticule.

As with many survival horror titles, stealth is key. However, Signalis takes an interesting approach to stealth mechanics. In most early encounters, I spotted one monster easily and then was taken off-guard by a hidden foe. Once I picked up Elster’s targeting system, things changed. Elster can immediately detect enemies by aiming a weapon at them. This adds a very strategic element to the game. Suddenly, I went from praying there was nothing in the shadows to praying I could reach an item before the thing in the shadows noticed me.

A prompt to pick up a copy of the book The King in Yellow in Signalis.

The Creeping Dread of Signalis

Atmosphere is what makes or breaks a retro horror game, and Signalis has an excellent atmosphere. The game’s anime art style may be an acquired taste, but the highly stylized visuals made me feel like I was trapped in a retro sci-fi nightmare. Seriously, I think I’ve had bad dreams like this. Blurry but distinct character models, malfunctioning Giger-esque environments, and vicious monsters coming for my head? Check, check, check. Many survival horror games fail to hit that sweet spot between dream logic and comprehensible game. Signalis already has it figured out in the first five minutes of gameplay. That’s a hell of an achievement.

A view of the observation deck in Signalis.

The soundscape is just as vital to the atmosphere as the visuals. The industrial and electronic soundtrack blends smoothly in with the sound effects. I found myself getting the two mixed up, especially when sirens began blaring during an ambush. The result was incredibly confusing and disorienting, and I love it. Meanwhile, the monsters’ screeches were always clear, cutting through everything else when I least wanted them to. The whole game feels like a bad trip in the best possible way. Also, the game over screen is a fatal error report for the robotic protagonist, and I love it.

The game is very good at using shadows and its zoomed-out, cinematic camera angles against you. Trying to sneak around one enemy just led me into the jaws of a second. And once combat broke out, the foes’ uncanny movements never failed to take me by surprise. In short, this is a game where everything, even battle, is designed to unnerve you. To succeed in Signalis, you must stay cool under pressure. Otherwise, it’s very easy to waste bullets trying to make the scary shape stop coming at you. Trust me, I would know.

The Horror of Discovery

If there’s one design philosophy I picked up from Signalis immediately, it’s that knowledge doesn’t make terrifying things any less terrifying. Just because you know something is there doesn’t mean you won’t jump out of your skin when it moves. This is important because Signalis was constantly unveiling new things for me to discover with the enthusiasm of an adventure game. As a result, I was left constantly in a state of mixed curiosity and terror.

The inventory screen in Signalis.

At one point, I opened a new door and found a new kind of monster lurking at the end of a brightly-lit hall. I’ve never closed a door so fast in my life. Despite this, a few moments later I spent a bullet to run past two other monsters and get to another new door. There are few things worse than exhausting your options in a room and realizing you have to go back into an area you know is dangerous.

One mild complaint I have is that the graphics are designed to evoke emotion rather than realism. As a result, noticing doors and objects can be difficult. Walking up to a door will give you a little flashing icon, but it’s still easy to mistake one for a wall. I constantly had to balance my fear of what could be lurking in the shadows with my need to check each room thoroughly.

Signalis key art

This game is not for the photosensitive or the faint of heart. But if you’re a fan of old-school survival horror, Lovecraftian horror, retro anime, and surreal media dripping with social criticism, I can’t recommend Signalis enough. Nothing overtly Lovecraftian or cosmic horror happens until the end of the demo, but when it happens, it leaves a hell of an impact. Please keep an eye out for the final build—it promises to be something spectacular.

***PC code provided by the publisher***