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Syndrome Review

Syndrome is a first-person survival horror game set aboard a derelict starship, where players must sneak past grotesque creatures and steadily work towards repairing the ship's systems. While the game's first half shines thanks to a solid grasp of mood-building and excellent visual design, the experience soon grows tiresome due to excessive backtracking and questionable means of raising the difficulty.

Syndrome Review

Introduction

Every so often, a game comes along that has great promise but falters in execution. Such is the fate of Syndromea game developed by Camel 101 that attempts to channel the likes of System Shock and other such titles. While I admire the forwardness with which the game presents itself and certain aspects of its design, the reality is that playing Syndrome shifts from a fun horror experience to a tedious slog.

For those still interested, Syndrome can be purchased on Steam.

Story

You are Officer Galen, one of the crew members of a starship who awakens from cryosleep after an unknown amount of time. To his horror and astonishment, everyone else aboard the ship is either dead, missing, or has transformed into partially-mechanical, entirely homicidal monstrosities.

Galen sets out to determine what has caused the ship's predicament, guided by a pair of survivors who – as the story progresses – seem to have their own agendas in play. On top of the interpersonal tension, Galen is also plagued by unusual phenomena, such as voices that seemingly have no source and hallucinations of once-living comrades.

Galen nearing the bridge of the starship in Syndrome.
The first half of the plot is undoubtedly the strongest, as it effortlessly maintains the mystery behind what forces are responsible for the crew's devastation while also being extremely unsettling. I felt uneasy as I moved through corridors and activated panels to move the story along, with every growl and every footstep leaving me sincerely frightened.

Syndrome's story initially doles out backstory and important details at a good pace, in part due to the careful usage of collectable text logs and spoken exposition in order to convey information. Little by little, the game reveals the nature of the now-vanished crew, offering a glimpse into what kind of tensions and poor judgement would cause such a cataclysmic outcome.

One of the various organic-machine hybrid creatures to be found in Syndrome.
Unfortunately, things start to come undone in the second half. The actual reveal of who and what caused the crew's transformation is rather anti-climactic, to say nothing of it coming immediately after another twist that tried desperately to make me rethink a major character's actions. Further, the pacing slows to a crawl as the game's fixation on backtracking and forced exploration (more on that in a moment) reached its peak.

Quite frankly, I had gotten tired of the game by Act 3, yet it continues for another two acts before concluding on a low note.

gameplay

In design, Syndrome could be summarized as a fairly stripped-down take on System Shock. It bears that classic game's balance of technological horror imagery and stealth-action gameplay, minus character building and more traditional role-playing elements.

You traverse the ship while wielding one of a handful of weapons, ranging from a multi-purpose wrench to a fast-firing assault rifle. Combat is de-emphasized, however, by the limited ammunition available and the presence of difficult-to-kill cyborg adversaries. Thus, a significant portion of gameplay is dedicated to dodging and hiding from foes, which I found to be a refreshing change of pace from straight-forward action titles.

An early game conversation between Galen and one of the few survivors.
Another key aspect of Syndrome is exploration; in order to move events forward and remain stocked up on useful items, the player will have to travel between different levels of a ship (an elevator moves you up and down to levels, for the most part). Players have access to a map at all times, which is important because many sections of the ship have been rendered unusable by debris and fire blocking the way.

This means you'll be identifying the correct corridors, backtracking to previously explored areas so as to access new objects, and making use of the ship's many ventilation shafts. Luckily, the game's environments are well-built in regards to allowing the player to move about and find new sections or rooms at their own pace.

That having been said, the level design isn't always on point, particularly when it comes to battling enemies. I encountered many instances of getting caught on boxes or running into loose wires and active steam vents while attacking or fleeing from enemies. Walls and objects seem placed specifically to make it hard to move about while fighting, and the various environmental hazards are a nightmare to contend with.

Galen having to fight cyborg creatures with a wrench.
Enemies in Syndrome are also a mixed bag. While the look of each flesh-machine hybrid creature is distinct and magnificent to behold, a number of recurring enemies proved to be utterly frustrating. The game starts out with zombie-esque enemies that can be dispatched with relative ease, before graduating to invisible creatures and sound-sensitive beasts who can quite easily instant-kill players. I appreciate the effort to offer a diverse line-up of horrifying foes, but the result leaves a lot to be desired.

Finally, I must make mention of the save system, which requires the player to find terminals throughout the game and manually save. Similar to Alien: Isolation, this design choice seems poised to add a certain amount of careful strategy and maneuvering to a given person's playthrough. I initially found it charming and even challenging, but quickly grew tired of the forced stops it added to an already lengthy finale.

Presentation

This is, at the very least, a stunning looking game. Syndrome goes with the familiar "dark corridors, sparse use of colour" style that can be found in many science-fiction games, yet here it's handled with class and care. The sheer darkness of passages and hallways is beautifully contrasted with bursts of orange, blue and green, creating an experience that rides the line between unsettling and aesthetically impressive.

Praise must also be given to the soundtrack, which opts for subtlety above all. A creeping sense of horror looms over every movement, every turn of the corner, as the low hum of the music is maintained throughout the game. There are natural moments where the soundtrack increases the tempo, but these changes fit with the on-screen action and usually correspond to the appearance of some unyielding evil presence.

A saving terminal that the player must visit in order to save progress in Syndrome.
In fact, the sound design in general is magnificent, right down to the performances of Syndrome's voice actors. While not plentiful in numbers and relegated mainly to significant narrative moments, the actors all manage to be compelling in their own ways. In particular, Galen's voice actor manages to convey how out of his depths the character is, even while still having to maintain a base level of courage to endure the horrors ahead.

The only place where the presentation truly falters is in the game's performance. In my playthrough,  the game's frame rate would fairly frequently slow to a crawl, making the action appear choppy and unstable. Some visual glitches and clipping were also present, though not often enough to detract from the experience.

My verdict

Parts of this experience had potential. The atmosphere feels right, aspects of the presentation are expertly crafted, and the game initially sets itself an attainable goal of being compellingly scary. But in the end, Syndrome simply couldn't stick the landing – not with its increasingly cruel difficulty spike and its frustrating technical shortcomings.

I wanted to love this one and came away struggling not to dislike it.

Pros Cons
 + Excellent Visuals & Creature Design  – Disappointing Conclusion
 + Magnificent Sound Work  – Questionable Escalation of Enemies
 + Strong Beginning of Story  – Manual Saving Grows Tiresome
 + Good Cultivation of Unsettling Atmosphere  – Hit-and-Miss Level Layout
 – Slowdown and Other Technical Issues
5.5
Average

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