What is it?: Psychological sci-fi survival horror inspired by Silent Hill.
Expect to pay $20/£16
Developer Pink engine
Publisher Modest games
Judged by Windows 11, Nvidia 2080 Ti, Intel i9-9900k @ 4.9 GHz, 32 GB RAM
Clutch Official site (opens in new tab)
Horror is hard to do right, especially if you don’t rely on cheap, reliable jump scares. That’s why the original Silent Hill trilogy are considered classics, while their many sequels and imitators have largely faded into obscurity. Despite being the debut release from small two-person indie studio Rose-Engine, sci-fi horror adventure Signalis joins that coveted pantheon as one of the best in the genre, and a personal favorite from a busy year.
At a glance, Signalis is familiar and accessible (down to the low-fi PS1-inspired graphics) to anyone who’s played a classic survival horror game. Played from an overhead perspective, there’s a labyrinth of interconnected rooms to explore, plenty of locked doors, a mix of logic and more abstract puzzles, and an assortment of monsters to shoot. Inventory space is precious, healing is finite, and the game can only be saved in safe rooms where you can store unused items in a storage chest.
Aesthetically it also feels like a refinement of those PlayStation gems. Backgrounds are crisp, sharp pixel art, while characters are smoothly animated 3D models, always clear and legible despite their relatively small size. The UI is equally sharp, despite its diegetic retro-tech aesthetic, and the map screen is particularly good, automatically marking any door you’ve been near as locked, blocked or open. Audio-wise, it channels the best in the business, with some very Akira Yamaoka industrial drones accompanying quieter moments, chaotic, panicked sound during combat, and an assortment of nostalgic tones, beeps, and chants upon menu actions.
It’s good old fashioned survival horror, done right. Combat is tense and has limited resources, encouraging evasion and ammunition collection. Puzzles are cleverly designed, slowing progress just long enough to deliver a Eureka moment. The only really unknown mechanical element is the radio tuner. Found early on, it allows you to listen to and decode radio signals. Sometimes just creepy numbers stations, other times important clues to items, and occasionally it’s even used in combat. While it doesn’t redefine game play, it’s consistently present enough to give even Signalis’ more familiar systems a refreshing twist.
Other elements are borrowed more directly from the Resident Evil 1 remake, including a ‘panic item’ lock for escaping close quarters combat, and a limited supply of incendiaries to incinerate corpses and permanently clear frequently-visited hallways. While mechanically most similar to Resident Evil, the overall atmosphere is much closer to Silent Hill, telling the story of a lone android technician named Elster who descends into metaphorical (and possibly literal) Hell in search of her missing co-pilot.
While Signalis deals in familiar sci-fi horror tropes (including an assortment of warped biomechanical creatures to shoot), this is psychological horror at heart. It is a character driven and emotionally charged story. A deliberately fragmented and dreamlike downward spiral, following a potentially unreliable narrator – wherever Elster goes, the player is forcibly dragged whether they want to or not.
Going into too much detail risks spoiling some surprises, but Signalis eschews sudden, loud scares to keep the player feeling constantly insecure, from persistent resource scarcity to harsh narrative curveballs. Enemies can resurface in once-vacated locations, the game’s perspective can suddenly shift from closed overhead to first-person, and plot twists can have heavy enough implications to negate any previously held understanding of what’s happening.
Machine women with machine minds
So much of why Signalis works depends on its world-building. While usually in a incredible cursed mining facility on a remote planet, there are dozens of diaries, logs and documents that paint a broader and more tragic picture. The Signalis universe is an alternate dark timeline where most technology was stuck around early 90s levels, but strange new sciences enabled the creation of sentient androids (known as Replikas) and interstellar expansion, and a war between a largely unseen wealthy, and the hideously fascist Eusan nation.
It’s under the Eusan banner that the cast struggles, and despite the sci-fi setting and many characters being man-made constructs, their stories are hauntingly human. They are ordinary people trying to live normal lives as the accelerations of their brutal society threaten to grind them to dust. It would be gruesome enough without dark secrets lurking deep in distant planets and pseudo-undead androids stalking the corridors. With them, it’s a rich, layered dessert of desperation, motivating even the most desperate character’s actions.
If it weren’t for this extra depth, I don’t think Signalis would have kept the landing narrative. The moment-to-moment storytelling is deliberately fragmented. Timelines are uncertain, and while Elster’s goal is always to continue her search deeper into the facility, some elements are always vague enough to invite interpretation. It’s into these narrative gaps that the earthy, grounded world-building fits, and the replay in search of secrets and alternate endings only becomes more satisfying when old scenes are revisited with additional context.
You’re not here
It’s hard to talk about Signalis without mentioning the many sources of inspiration it openly and eagerly references. From nods to works of classic horror like The King In Yellow, to sequences that riff heavyweight anime like Ghost In The Shell and Evangelion, there are familiar touchstones everywhere. Famous paintings and haunting classical music both base the game’s setting on the familiar, while further accentuating the more surreal elements in the way they are used. There’s just enough of the real world here, oddly framed to feel like a dream.
Even after completing it twice, the only real complaint I can make with Signalis is that inventory management is a bit too clunky. While you can store infinite amounts in your storage space, Elster can only carry six items. Five, once you have the much-used flashlight with you, and some puzzles require several free spaces. Leaving healing items behind and only carrying one gun can reduce frustrations, but there will be times when you’ll be randomly forced to go back through enemy corridors to store gear.
Despite this one lingering wrinkle, Signalis is one of the best horror games I’ve played in years. Tense, disturbing and thought-provoking. It takes a hundred known elements, inspirations and references and weaves them into something completely new and totally worth it.