Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An artifact brought aboard a spaceship by an aggressive third party turns most of its crew insane and/or into monsters, rendering the ship little more than a derelict as it floats adrift amidst the nothingness. I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like the plot of Dead Space. It’s also the set-up for Syndrome, a first-person Horror Adventure game where you play as Trent Galen, who awakens from cryosleep to an empty ship and he (of course) has no idea what is happening.
It quickly becomes apparent that something has gone horribly when Galen soon learns that most of the crew are dead and that there are rival factions at work trying to contend with a force stronger than they both are. Naturally, both parties are looking to escape the ship, and the player is the vessel to accomplish this.
Syndrome also wears its influences on its sleeve, reeling in aspects of System Shock 2, Alien Isolation, and (as hinted at above), Dead Space. The game utilizes the same Save Station mechanic that made Alien Isolation such a thrilling game, while the ship you’re on, the Valkenburg echoes shades of the Von Braun from System Shock 2. In other words, if you’re well-versed in the genre, you won’t find much that you haven’t seen before.
Syndrome sets itself up quite well as the game slowly builds up the tension before unleashing the monsters upon you, but once that happens, you quickly come to realize how limited Syndrome’s game systems and design choices are as well as a number of technical problems that inject an unfortunate level of frustration into the equation.
Syndrome does a pretty excellent job of creating a convincing atmosphere.
The Valkenburg itself is a claustrophobic maze of hallways leading to various points of interest. Corpses litter flickering hallways, typically missing an extremity or two, and a few hang from the ceiling, forcing the player to walk uncomfortably in between them which gives off a convincing sense that something sinister has happened here. Electrical wires spark as they lay strewn about on the floor, while pipes vent hot steam into the areas that you’re walking in to create added elements of danger, which keeps you on your toes.
In some cases, the hallways can feel a little too dark, but this ends up becoming a feature once you acquire the flashlight tool, making navigating the dark without attracting attention, a central part of Syndrome’s game loop. Players also piece together bits of backstory from bits of text logs that aren’t overly lengthy but inject enough context to make you feel like the Valkenburg was a well lived place at one time.
It’s just unfortunate that Syndrome can’t keep itself up under the weight of its weak design.
While Syndrome initially builds momentum through strong environmental design, it’s brought to a screeching halt by its backtrack-oriented story, confusing level design, and rough combat mechanics. I can’t tell you how many times I would arrive at a point that the game asked me to go to, only to get an audio dialog telling me that I needed to retrace my steps to the elevator, go down two floors, cross another section of hallway just to retrieve a key card, tool, or thing to open up said passage, then make my way back to open the door/hatch/whatever only to be met with a new objective that required yet another long trek.
What resulted was the inescapable feeling of an artificial inflation of game time and pure tedium. This mission structure ultimately boiled down to nothing more than a set of glorified fetch quests, and let me tell you; it got old pretty quickly.
Combat is...rough. Very rough.
On top of that, Syndrome suffers a lack of any meaningful combat. As I mentioned before, the game does do a good job of setting things up; it's just that they payoff that the game provides is feeble. When you get into your first combat encounter, you only have one means of killing the foe, which is the use of a wrench. Melee combat boils down to taking a few steps towards the enemy while timing your swing and hoping it lands.
You do have the ability to block incoming attacks, but the time it takes for the animation to play, ultimately renders the move to be more of a burden rather than an option, so I found that the easiest thing to do was to go with an all-offensive approach.
You do eventually get guns into your inventory, but the scarcity of ammo and the lack of any meaningful response from the enemies (it takes a while to kill them even with headshots), ultimately makes the problematic melee system the best option.
It's tough to recommend Syndrome to even the most devout horror fan. It's clumsy combat and poor mission design end up making the game feel dragged out more than it does immersive. It's a shame because Syndrome takes inspiration from some great source material, it just seems like it couldn't take what worked in the likes of Alien Isolation and Dead Space and make it all it's own.
It's also worth noting that Syndrome does suffer from some fairly substantial performance issues. The game began to frame stutter over longer sessions, and there was one very awkward moment where the game could not decide if I was using controller or mouse and keyboard inputs, rendering some buttons on the controller inactive, as well as the mouse. I have seriously never seen something like that before, and possibly never will again.
The developers have been patching the game since launch, so it is good to know that they have not yet given up on improving Syndrome’s performance issues.
Diehard fans will enjoy the atmosphere, but the rough gameplay and level design ultimately bring down Syndrome.
About The Author
Daniel R. Miller
I'll play anything at least once. But RPG's, Co-Op/Competitive Multiplayer, Action Adventure games, and Sports Franchise Modes keep me coming back. Follow me on Twitter @TheDanWhoWrites