System Shock 2, Doom 3, Alien: Isolation – these are names that make PC stealth-action or horror fans weak in the knees. Syndrome, a new survival horror game developed by Camel 101, is an apologetic love letter to those titles and others like it. It has the big spaceship, the darkness, the cramped hallways, the futuristic technology and, most importantly, the dangerous enemies. Unfortunately, while Syndrome’s heart is in the right place, it falls victim to a myriad of design problems and amateurish mistakes. Once the game’s great first impression wears off, it quickly descends into a quagmire of tedium and frustration.
If you have played the games that I mentioned in the first paragraph, then the setting and atmosphere of this game will feel very familiar to you. The game’s opening act is almost a carbon copy of the beginning of System Shock 2. You are awoken from cryosleep on a ship in deep space, disoriented and vulnerable. Right away, an unfamiliar voice comes on in your ear and warns you that something has gone horribly wrong with the ship – the crew has been infected with some sort of alien disease and almost everyone has gone crazy or transformed into some sort of hideous monster. You, of course, for some reason, are the only one who can save the day. This all too familiar (and almost clichéd) beginning is the setup for your mission – to find out what went wrong on this ship.
Right away, it is easy to be impressed by the atmosphere that the game presents, thanks in large part to some terrific scenery. Syndrome does suffer from the bland gray and brown color palette that defined the looks of games like Dead Space and Doom 3, but it still crafts some attractive and immersive environments. Particularly impressive are the numerous bright colorful computer screens and readouts that adorn almost every room. If you had any doubt that this game takes place in the future, then all of the flashing doo-dads and important looking control panels will eliminate that doubt almost immediately. Syndrome’s dark, shadowy lighting is also impressive in spots, especially their fire efffects. Don’t be surprised if you get creeped out multiple times by the shadows of an inanimate object dancing on the walls of a room where something is burning. The weapons that you hold are incredibly detailed and look as good as any first person weapons that I have ever seen. The character skins and environmental textures don’t fare quite as well, but they at least look decent. Equally effective is the game’s environmental audio, which contains a broad range of unsettling noises like heartbeats, hissing steam, sparking wires, doors opening and closing, and all sorts of creepy bumps and inorganic groans. Topping it off is the game’s appropriately tense soundtrack, which erupts terrifyingly when a dangerous enemy has spotted you. Syndrome presents its sci-fi and horror themes very well. Unfortunately, that’s about all that it does well.
Everything else in Syndrome, be it sloppy and poorly refined game mechanics, dull level design, or terrible voice acting, goes wrong and, in some cases, horribly wrong. Syndrome leaves you with the very strong impression that so much effort and budget was spent on the graphics that not enough was left over for play testing the game and reworking the areas that needed improvement.
The worst part of the game is probably the part where it needs to succeed the most – its stealth mechanics. Syndrome is an unapologetic in its difficulty, with powerful enemies that are often very difficult to kill. Sneaking past many of them is a must, but the stealth mechanics for the game are rotten. If you think back to any survival horror game that you have played that involves being stealthy, then chances are, it had better stealth than this game. Syndrome requires you to stay hidden from enemies, but it gives you absolutely no tools for doing so. You cannot hide in the shadows ala Garrett from the Thief series. You have no radar to give you an idea where any of the enemies are, nor can you lean – that means no peeking around corners to see if the coast is clear. You make less sound when you are crouched than when you walk, but you still make some sound, which makes it impossible to sneak up on enemies to ambush them. You can theoretically run past enemies, but you can only run for about four or five seconds, which is not enough to get away completely and find a place to hide. All that you can do is slowly crawl past them when their patrol routes take them down a separate path. The environments are cramped and mostly linear, giving you almost no alternate routes for avoiding enemy patrols. The game has the occasional environmental object like a bottle or a box that you can throw to distract an enemy, but this mechanic is implemented poorly too. You can’t pick up these objects and put them into your inventory – you can only hold them directly out in front of you and throw them a short distance. Bottles that you are holding will break when you brush up against a wall, a supremely irritating occurrence that instantly gives you away and usually leads to death. When people who don’t like stealth games talk about why they don’t like stealth games, they usually describe experiences like the ones that you will have playing Syndrome.
Theoretically, you should be able to survive lots of encounters via combat, but the combat has all kinds of problems too. The melee combat is terrible. Animations are unimpressive and the collision detection is horrible – enemies will register a hit on you even when their arms/claws pass five feet in front of your face. They will also frequently register hits on you when they are only halfway through their punching/slapping animation. Enemies swing their arms lightning fast, giving you no opportunity to use the game's completely worthless block ability. Their hits interrupt your swings – the only way to hit enemies is to use a cheesy tactic where you press the “attack” button just outside of an enemy’s range, step in, and then step back out again. You get a pistol a couple of hours into the game and, later on, a submachine gun. These weapons, however, are the quintessential weak pea shooters that require unloading a clip into somebody's face in order to take them down. Enemies show no signs of damage from your guns until they finally die. Enemy encounters are a relentless string of frustration and reloading your saved game from the last checkpoint.
When it comes to its story pacing and level design, Syndrome gets bogged down with some of the most tedious, contrived fetch quests and boring tasks that you will ever experience. In this game you track and then backtrack across each level multiple times, running four or five errands at a time before you inch the story forward. You need to start the ship’s engines. But before you can do that, you have to find the key card for the engine room, which is at the other end of the ship in a dead guy’s pocket. The path to the keycard is blocked, so you have to get a wrench to unlock a vent to crawl through. The wrench is on another floor. To get to that floor, you have to restore power to the elevator. The power switch for the elevator resides in a room that you need a code to enter. Somebody has written down the code for the door on a tablet that is on the floor on the other side of the ship. By the time that you have run this string of errands, you have probably forgotten what your goal was in the first place.
Your travels back and forth across the ship will take you through a lot of repetitive scenery. Syndrome looks great at first, but after a few hours, you have seen every object, every computer screen, and every character skin a bunch of times. The ship is dark and drab, and that is appropriate, but that doesn’t mean that every area has to look almost exactly the same. One of the greatest strengths of System Shock 2 was how many different areas the ship had and how it felt like a colony in space. Syndrome doesn’t have this feeling. The ship in this game feels s more like a series of interconnected steel hallways and rooms, making for a dull experience.
On top of the game's major gameplay problems, it suffers from all sorts of minor issues that smack of a low budget and a lack of play testing and feedback. The voice acting in the game, for example, is horribly flat and in some cases, spoils the sense of immersion. The voice actors and actresses recite their lines like robots, devoid of emotion, killing any sense that these people are in life threatening situations. The game has no way of allowing you to rebind your keys in the controls menu. In fact, you can't even see what the key bindings are in any menu, a bizarre oversight. The interface is dull and uninspired. The inventory screen, for instance, is just a blank screen that says "Inventory" with a bunch of boxes. The dark rooms are filled with objects, but it's very hard to tell which objects you can interact with, and there aren't many of those. To open up a box or a locker, you have to get right up to it and put the targeting reticule right in the perfect location to get the prompt to open the container. On multiple occasions, I got stuck on quests because I didn't know that I could open an object somewhere. The game needed some more polishing before release.
Syndrome is ultimately a very hard game to recommend. It succeeds at being scary, but that is about the only part of the game that lives up to expectations. It's poorly designed and poorly refined stealth mechanics make for a very frustrating experience, and the game gives you no reason to endure that frustration. There is little to reward you for your troubles. The story isn't special, the exploration is boring, the combat is poor, and your quests are uninteresting. Perhaps this game will find an audience with a crowd that loves how punishing it is and doesn't really care what else Syndrome has to offer. If you don't think that you would be part of that audience, however, then Syndrome is a game that you should probably avoid.