The hatch to my cryosleep pod groans as it opens, echoing off of the steal walls of the empty room. Alone and disoriented, I climb out and fall to the ground, coughing from the shock of air rushing back into my lungs. A brief message appears on the screen to give me my first objective: leave the room. My heart rate is jacked. Anxiety sets in from anticipation, and my hand gets extra twitchy as I move the mouse. Why do I love these type of games so much?
Syndrome “takes first person survival horror back to its roots,” Camel 101 states on their Steam page. They do not exaggerate. If you think back to the earliest of early survival horror games (before the term existed) like Malcom Evans’ 3D Monster Maze, it’s easy to see what roots they are talking about. Their game is a blend of action-oriented horror and psychological horror that pits you against the unknown with limited means of defense. Checking security cameras, hiding in lockers, and saving ammunition for the most serious situations are all important strategies you must use to survive.
Syndrome doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to figuring out where to go or where to hide. Sure, you have a map, but you have to be alert. I found myself wandering in circles just to find an alternative way into a locked area, going from one room to the next and passing my cursor over every wall and every object to see if there was anything I could interact with.
It’s not clear why you are there, or why you don’t know the people communicating with you, but straight away the story makes you question who to trust. Should you trust Neomi or James? I did think it was strange that those communicating with me were concerned about being traced to their location on the ship. I assumed that they could hear one another because James hijacks Neomi’s transmission at one point to tell me that I shouldn’t trust her, which could mean both parties know the location of the other one. Are they also concerned about the “other things” on the ship? Whatever the case, it gave me the sense that I was a pawn in whatever game they were playing against each other.
The timing of the music and other sound effects is on-point. Upon encountering the first room with dead bodies, a quick, high-pitched screech of a violin syncs with the door as it opens, making the image of the grizzly scene have a greater emotional impact. The ship itself is badly damaged in some areas, and it’s easy to assume that every creak and groan is some structural support caving under stress. You can’t ever be certain where a noise is coming from or what is making that noise; the acoustics make it hard to pinpoint where it’s coming from.
One thing I noticed in particular was the pacing; Syndrome kept the suspense on visuals and sound alone for about the first 30 minutes. Then, once you start to let your guard down, they give you your first glimpse of a shadowy figure through a security camera. It appears to watch you for a few seconds, then, in a blink, it disappears from the screen. At this point that I realized the “thing” was outside the door I just unlocked, and the anxiety came rushing back. Like music and sound effects, beats like this moment must be timed perfectly. The methods in which the suspense is heightened will obviously vary, but the end goal is to catch the player unaware and make it emotionally difficult for them to progress. When it came to that point for me, I stood staring into the hallway, swearing that there was something waiting for me around the corner.
Without two characters trying to manipulate your trust early on in the game, Syndrome would not have stood out against the hundreds of others games of the same genre. It seems that the developers have a carefully planned out story to tell, and I would like to know that that is.