“Achtung! Achtung!” The shout pours in through an offscreen receiver, staticky and muffled. Frederick Chopin’s “Raindrop” is playing over scenes of ruined brutalist buildings, their halls occupied with indiscernible horrors that lumber after a woman in red and black. This was the announcement trailer for German developer rose-studio’s SIGNALIS. While it provided a glimpse into what the studio was cooking up at the time, it only touched the surface of the horrors that lurked within.
The game begins as ELSTER, a Replika (or artificial being), awakens alone in the remains of a ship sent off into the bowels of space to the planet set at the edge of an unknown galaxy. Within minutes, you find yourself in a dilapidated facility known as Sierpinski, bereft of any life save for the few Replikas you encounter on your way to find a woman named Ariane Yeong. A promise the pair made holds them together, spurring the Replika onwards. You piece together information that informs you of the events that potentially transpired before your arrival. There are notes left by the other Replikas and Gestalts (humans, in this case) that inhabited the facility, as well as manuals and leaflets that extrapolate on gameplay mechanics that tie into worldbuilding.
SIGNALIS uses these elements to passively tell a story of an authoritarian regime extending its power beyond the stars. It speaks of exploitation and oppression using Cold War era imagery, and of the arms race that left behind nuclear waste that irreparably changed our own real-world environments by using its own analogies and visuals to create a layered experience that leaves you wanting to know and understand more. (“This is not a place of honor…”) It draws upon these themes to create something that lingers in the back of the mind, something that sticks with you once the credits roll for the first or fourth time.
The dialogue is also incredible, with some of the rawest lines I’ve ever experienced in a game coming in brief flashes through sparse, but well-placed, cutscenes. All of the characters stand-out, specifically those given additional screen-time, but even the Replikas you meet holding on to or exploiting their humanity manage to contribute to the excellent passive storytelling. Even if they appear for only a few, brief moments, they leave a mark.
But SIGNALIS is more than that. It is evocative and striking in the way that it presents its themes. Hard cuts and transitions from environments to character illustrations and text blend and mix language in a way that feels poignant. Sudden shifts to first person add extra flavor to the overall presentation as you navigate the memories of a you that isn’t you. These moments are interspliced with static and flashes of red; clear signals of the decaying of the mind and intrusive memories that threaten to overwhelm ELSTER. The few cutscenes that do play out leave a lasting impression in the way it incorporates the “Isle of the Dead” by Arnold Bocklin in its various iterations. Its cycles that repeat, over and over, and over again… different, but somehow the same as ELSTER looks for the woman she loves. It’s this looming sense of dread, sorrow, and purpose that punctuate SIGNALIS in every aspect, be it through its narrative, loose and left to interpretation, or the level design that forces you onwards through places that were once familiar.
Much like how the game draws inspiration from obvious culprits (Silent Hill and Resident Evil to name a few), but comes out the other end with its own identity. It pulls on that familiarity to make players experienced with classic survival horror almost feel at ease. It was second nature navigating menus and dodging the twisted remains of other Replikas that lurked down dark corridors. It was that memory of the familiar that had me saving ammunition or searching and sleuthing for information to solve challenging puzzles that tested my wits. However, these inspirations do not define SIGNALIS. Instead, they only serve to enhance it.
Some may find issue with the limited inventory and item box system, but the developers are looking to add more inventory slots to make the game more accessible. The controls on the controller can sometimes feel tough to navigate, especially when trying to single out a target in a group of enemies, but it doesn’t make the game impossible to play. There is also difficulty selection immediately available upon starting the game, so you can opt for a more challenging experience or something a bit more leisurely. That said, I appreciated the tension these more archaic game design elements provided, since I had to make sure runs from room to room were worthwhile as I evaded the more dangerous Replikas that appeared in the later half of the game. (Also, once you think you’ve beaten the game… you haven’t. So please do yourself a favor and continue even after the credits roll.) It’s tried and true survival horror at its finest.
By the end of it, everything swells together to create something that lingers in the back of the mind, gnawing away like a memory desperate to resurface. SIGNALIS is a game that I will never forget. And I will never forget the promise that was made between ELSTER and Ariane — of their love as selfish and cruel or beautiful and compassionate as it may be — that persisted through endless cycles of distortion and tragedy.
SIGNALIS is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.