Sylvio

It’s no secret that horror games often favour the “horror” at the expense of the “game” part. This has been true from the start, with the cumbersome controls of Resident Evil and Silent Hill gathering their share of infamy. The most egregious case, however, is a recent trend: the Slender clone. Characterized by barren environments, collection-based gameplay, and stalking antagonists, these games are often some of the laziest products clogging the Steam Greenlight queue. Sylvio is one of the best entries in the category thanks its unique and subtle brand of horror, but being the best Slender clone is like being the best B movie – it’s only impressive relative to the immediate competition.

The primary reason Sylvio rises above its peers is that despite its obvious inspirations, it introduces a lot of its own ideas to augment the genre-standard “go to a thing and collect it” gameplay. First and foremost is the recording equipment. Protagonist Juliette Waters specializes in analyzing paranormal audio, and so carries a microphone and tape recorder throughout the game. These items prove surprisingly versatile, being used to open combination locks, uncover secrets, find the next objective, and decipher the backstory. At first the microphone is used similarly to the “dowsing” mechanic from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (except unlike dowsing, it’s a core mechanic rather than a pointless interruption of a grand adventure, so it’s only a little bland, rather than completely horrible), but as its utility expands, it becomes an indispensable atmospheric device.

Decrypting the ghostly recordings that Juliette captures from defeated enemies is where the game shines. Going into it, I thought that actively seeking out eerie sound clips would render them trite, since it would negate the sense of hostility usually implied by their presence. Sylvio counters this assumption by keeping the intentions of the disembodied voices permanently ambiguous and conveying them with superb sound design. If anyone thinks they’ve already experienced all of the inherent creepiness of backmasked or decelerated vocals, Sylvio will prove them wrong. Uncovering usable dialogue eventually becomes routine (there’s only five mutually exclusive methods a recording can be altered with, after all), but for the game’s first half, it has the uniquely impressive ability to instill paranoia with nothing but a few cutting words of foreboding conversation.

Still, no amount of routine compares to the overwhelming tedium of the other gameplay elements. When the player arrives at a new area, the first step is usually to root out a small number of enemies that take the form of amorphous black orbs. This is done using a makeshift bazooka that fires collected debris such as glass shards and rocks. It’s…different, I’ll give it that, but its design is full of pointless complications. For one thing, the gas that powers it must be constantly refilled. Additionally, only sharp ammo actually harms enemies, while blunt ammo is used for puzzle-solving. This wouldn’t be a problem if ammo type could be toggled, but instead it’s all piled onto a single first-in, last-out stack. It’s a small stack too – it’s not uncommon to have to traipse back to the nearest ammo cache every other time something needs shooting, assuming the level design allows it. Otherwise, your only option is to die and collect ammo upon respawning.

The game also requires an unconscionable amount of walking – back and forth over the same unnecessarily wide expanses of empty land repeatedly. The level design lacks any kind of composition – puzzle-related objects and optional collectibles are scattered everywhere, often hundreds of metres away from each other. The only reason they can even be found is because they become highlighted on the HUD once recorded messages (which appear in the wake of defeated enemies) are decoded. The game is plagued with padding; one level requires the player to collect four objects located all over the map. There’s no reason this couldn’t have been shortened to one object, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be placed somewhere more meaningful than an empty field. Even gaining a new mode of transportation doesn’t help; traveling to new areas consists solely of using the slowest car in video games to follow a crow in a straight line to a destination. It’s a literal commute between levels.

The puzzles themselves are adequate, at least. Their difficulty is mostly agreeable, with any moments of adventure game logic balanced by occasional clever solutions, mostly utilizing the debris gun to knock objects into place. In fact, the automatic highlighting of important objects is something a lot of adventure games could learn from. Showing where each puzzle piece is at the start, but not where it needs to end up, eliminates a pointless and frustrating step from the process. On the other hand, while Sylvio occasionally realizes that providing shortcuts to previous sections is good practice, it doesn’t realize it enough to be particularly praiseworthy. Dishonourable mention must also go to the last level, which has such a convoluted layout and such obscure directions that it will almost certainly be completed by most players using unintentional sequence breaks.

Sylvio is also severely flawed on a technical level. In un-minced words, it’s a really ugly game. Blobby items that visibly float in front of the player’s face, muddy textures, and graphical glitches all contribute to the visual unpleasantness. Furthermore, rather than a crosshair, the player’s primary method of aiming is a sort of “practice shot” mechanic, illustrated with a rudimentary particle effect. It’s not particularly useful, but it would be a lot more useful if the projectile physics were consistent. As it stands, ammo often sticks to edges and bounces off objects without registering a collision. The other controls are no better – the car handles like a toy, and item management is terribly cumbersome, especially since the lack of custom key bindings leaves the “cycle item” action relegated to the ‘3’ key.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the game is barely functional, because I can’t help but detect the influence of Deadly Premonition on the proceedings. It doesn’t drop to that game’s level of comedic weirdness, but it still contains a few odd deviations from its otherwise bleak atmosphere. The aerosol-fuelled garbage launcher is the most obvious example, but it’s far from the only one. The setting’s mascot, a toad in a top hat, pops up everywhere, and the car constantly plays a radio tune that sounds like a mellower, instrumental version of “What Is Love”. There’s also a recurring optional puzzle involving a skeleton and a dirt-coloured balloon that manages the unthinkable feat of coming full circle – being so out of place in a horror game that it becomes its own kind of horror. I don’t know if the game is better or worse for these inclusions, but it certainly gains a unique identity from them.

Aside from these aspects, Sylvio’s style of horror is entirely psychological. The setting – an old family park that was nearly buried in a landslide decades ago – was perfectly chosen; walking among the peaks of trees and buildings entombed in mountains of soil is quite the uncanny experience. When combined with the tried-and-true Silent Hill technique of shrouding the world in a thick mist, players will be seeing imaginary threats in every shadow. The actual threats aren’t very intimidating, but their behaviour (floating through solid objects straight towards the player) is unnerving all the same. Their harmless appearance also serves to lull the player into a sense of security, so that when something other than a large black bubble shows up to antagonize you, it does so to shocking effect.

For a while, I was prepared to recommend Sylvio’s story as a major reason to play it, but that notion didn’t survive the game’s ending. After building intrigue right from the outset by overtly demonstrating that someone else is in the abandoned park moments ahead of Juliette, and then using ghostly chatter to piece together the place’s sprawling paranormal history, the plot evaporates in a nonsensical anticlimax. To say it provides more questions than answers would be misleading, as that would imply that it provides any answers at all. It’s true that a good horror mystery should probably leave some things unclear, but there’s a difference between fostering a fear of the unknown and just leaving the audience scratching their heads and saying, “Huh?”

The one narrative element that emerges from the credits unscathed is Juliette’s character. She could have easily been a non-entity, seeking out whispering ghosts because it’s a fascinating thing to do and leaving it at that. While that is pretty much her entire motivation, her depiction extends beyond that, subtly painting her as a confident, curious person. Most tellingly, she never shows a hint of fear even in situations designed to creep the player the hell out. She absentmindedly hums to herself while reading books, she climbs precarious structures just to find information, and her voice would be downright relaxing in any other context. Even if the narrative is doomed, Juliette provides a human core that keeps it engaging until those final, execrable moments.

“Human” is actually quite an appropriate description of the Sylvio experience. Ethereal blobs and deserted setting aside, it’s a game about following human curiosity and learning people’s stories, as conveyed by simple phrases and emotions. It’s also full of the kind of design oversights and technical shortcomings commonly associated with a one-man development team. Hardcore horror fans will appreciate it, as presumably they’re used to tolerating subpar gameplay and sub-subpar production values, but casual players would be better off sticking with the more venerable titles it draws influence from.