Syndrome is a game that asks the question – “What if Alien: Isolation didn’t have the licence for the Xenomorph, the rich and tense atmosphere, interesting level design or competent gameplay?” From that opening sentence it should be easy enough to glean this writer’s opinion of Syndrome. The difficulty in writing this review is where exactly to begin with Syndrome’s myriad of shortcomings as well as how to go about translating a white ball of anger towards Syndrome into something resembling coherent sentences.
Once upon a time
At the beginning of Syndrome you are treated to a cutscene where you find out the ship the Valkenburg has been commandeered by the military to transport an alien artifact. The player assumes the role of Trent Galen who awakens from cryo-sleep to discover something has gone terribly wrong on the spaceship, and the majority of the crew are deceased or missing. This is the sci-fi game equivalent of “once upon a time”. There’s no issue with starting as others have started before you. Syndrome’s problem is what happens after you wake up. By and large everything that happens next is either boring or frustrating and sometimes manages to be both.
Backtracking in video games has its place but the backtracking forced on the player in Syndrome adds nothing and detracts much
Over and over and over…..
The story and objectives of Syndrome fall firmly into the boring category. Once you have stepped out of your cryo tube you are contacted by two different people, both tell you not to trust anyone. The second voice that contacts you starts giving you instructions on how to get the ship back in working order because it has been floating in space for some time. As it turns out this involves the player walking down grey corridors to a room so they can press a button that will open a door to a room down some grey corridors with a different button to press that will open up a door to a room…. etc. It is mind-numbing.
Backtracking in video games has its place; Metroidvania games will have you back track in order to access new areas with your brand new gadget. The reasons Syndrome gives for sending the player back through the same corridors over and over again are flimsy. As you can see from the screenshots the environment is an endless procession of identical grey corridors, the amount of times you have to revisit the same corridor is criminal. Since it’s the same area over and over again Syndrome lacks any feeling of real progression.
The voice actors were probably relatives of the developers so it’s a bit mean to have a go at them
Bland and Boring Atmosphere
So the level design is awful, the story is boring, what next? Let’s do atmosphere, or more accurately the complete lack thereof. In a competent horror game all of the elements of the game will work together to put the player on edge and create a sense of dread. However, as was mentioned earlier, this is not a competent horror game.
The sound design is poor. The voice actors were probably relatives of the developers so it’s a bit mean to have a go at them. They are quite bad though. It is possible; however, that even a professional voice actor would have issues wrapping their mouths around the clunky and under-written dialogue. At one point your character has to use a circular saw in order to remove a hand to get through a door with a hand print scanner. “Geez, this is gross” says the player character. I laughed out loud, the phrasing, the delivery it was all so poor.
At the beginning of the game when what was going on was still a mystery, the sound design built up a relatively strong sense of foreboding. Then nothing happened, and nothing kept happening for a very long time. There is the occasional loud noise that might startle sometimes but jumpscares are cheap and easy.
UNFORTUNATELY the supposedly terrifying ENEMY looks like the result of an amateur stop motion animation class.
Well, that was easy
After an inordinately long time the player will finally meet their first enemy. When the possessed former crew-member first appeared I ran straight at it and hit it four or five times with my space wrench, killing it. The last of whatever meager atmosphere this inept game had managed to build evaporated for good. When the possessed enemies started appearing on the ship why did no one think to hit them with sticks?
As the game progresses the player will meet other enemy types, all failing to instil any sense of dread. The enemies have terrible pathfinding, often, when I turned back to see how far away a pursuing enemy was I would be greeted by the sight of them struggling to walk past a desk. There is a blind enemy that is introduced as something to be feared and hidden from; unfortunately it looks like the result of an amateur stop motion animation class.
It’s a testament to Syndrome and how many things it does wrong that the developers even managed to get crouching wrong
How do you mess this up?
It’s a testament to Syndrome and how many things it does wrong that the developers even managed to get crouching wrong. Crouching in first person games is almost ubiquitous and how its handled is fairly uniform. That is, your perspective gets lower, and you move slower. That’s pretty straight forward right? In Syndrome movement while crouched is bizarre, the player character pushes himself forward a certain amount, stops, then does it again.
The constant stop-start movement is infuriating and makes movement while crouched insufferable. Bear in mind that Syndrome forces you to crouch for a large portion of the game as some of the enemies your character encounters will detect anyone walking upright.
The issues I had with crouching reminded me of a helpful tip that had displayed during one of Syndrome’s loading screens. “Hide in lockers to avoid enemies, but make sure you are not seen” So I resolved to do just that the next time I encountered an enemy that could detect sound. It wasn’t a very long wait, I shut the locker door behind me, once I was sure the coast was clear I tried to get out. No such luck, somehow I had clipped into the locker itself. At this point my character began rising out the top of the locker. This is where Trent remained until I quit the game to go do literally anything else. This wasn’t the only technical issue of this type I encountered, but this review is already too long.
That’s a lot of negative feedback, surely there has to be something in Syndrome that deserves complimenting. There is, your opportunities to save often, because of this you don’t have to play Syndrome for any more time than is necessary.
To summarise, Syndrome is a truly dreadful game on almost every level and there is absolutely no reason to buy it. In fact, if this game is ever received as a gift, the understanding should be that whatever relationship was once there has ended forever. When I’m lying on my deathbed glumly recalling the regrets of my life, the hours I wasted playing Syndrome will break, at least, the top ten. That last part may have been slightly hyperbolic.
Alien: Isolation will probably be on sale at some point this week, buy that if you don’t own it.