Games that go 8-bit are often loved for their retro art styles and throwbacks to a golden age of video games. Other games that take the simple side-scrolling platformer and add a unique twist are praised for their innovations on classic formulas. These are examples of paying homage while still dancing to the beat of your own drum. Signal Ops definitely has a homage feel to it all but it stumbles and trips the entire way through. It’s art style is confusing; on one hand it looks to be inspired by the wonky art of when games first went 3D but on the other hand it just looks bad. The same can be said for the controls and the idea behind the mechanics. While underneath the muck there is certainly an innovative idea, there is an awful lot of muck to dig past.
You begin your time in Signal Ops by waking in your room, an agent of the “Dark Father” who is responsible for controlling field agents for a higher power’s dark bidding. By walking up to a set of monitors you assume control of a squad of trained killers. Each soldier has a unique ability that makes them essential to a level’s completion. The Wrench can open locked doors, the Demo can set charges, and the Bolt, perhaps the most important of them all, is the keeper of the radio. This radio allows you to see your team and keep in contact with them, but its range is only so far. By moving the radio you keep in contact with your team but detaching the radio from a power box causes it to lose battery power and eventually shut off completely, making you lose your signal with the rest of the team. This comes into play when you begin to realize you can’t move any further without finding a power box to charge the radio. As such you spend a large time in each level looking for ways to charge the radio while moving slowly along and staying out of danger.
The latter of the two gameplay mechanics is much harder than one would assume in a stealth, squad-based tactical shooter. This is in large part to the fact that the art style, some would call it Expressionist, makes it hard to see what is a shadow and what is not. This led to many a time where I’d be caught and killed due to not knowing where I was “allowed” to sneak. You do have the ability to assume control of a squad member directly, in which the game plays like a traditional FPS with lackluster controls. Both the keyboard/mouse and gamepad controls felt a bit stiff and made it difficult to really feel in control. Most of the time I was shooting just left or just right of my target and spray and pray became the go to method, hardly stealth at all.
I enjoyed the TV mechanic of watching your squad through a monitor as it looked interesting, but its actual execution is poor. I felt it difficult to switch between monitors in order to select the appropriate unit and this became even more difficult when my squad began to increase in number. One of the worst parts of squad-based tactical games is having to micromanage every member of the squad. These are elite soldiers trained for duty, why do I need to tell them where to walk and who to follow every second? Most games take this out by implementing smart AI that knows what to do in the most basic sense. Sadly, Signal Ops is fond of making you command each squad member which quickly becomes cumbersome and tiring. The clunky controls made it a hassle to switch between squad members and then issue the appropriate order to make sure I was getting to where I needed to go.
There is a LAN Co-op mode that might make the game a bit more digestible as playing with another person or two would take the weight off a bit, but I can’t imagine it fixing too many of the game’s problems. I liked the dark humor in Signal Ops but the controls are too overbearing and the art style became too much of an issue to deal with that I just couldn’t look past the problems. There is definitely an interesting and unique idea underneath the problems which far outweigh everything else. You can buy Signal Ops on GoodOldGames.com for $15 but know what you’re getting into first.