In Space, No One Can See You Giving The Middle Finger to Syndrome
HIGH Finally cutting loose and blasting a zombie with all my ammo.
LOW Any one of the five game-breaking bugs I encountered.
WTF Stranger: “Let’s fly this plague ship to a human planet!” My character: “Sounds like a great plan!”
There are fundamental things that developers shouldn’t get wrong when they’re making a game — basic rules established over years and embraced by players who need a baseline of competence and familiarity. In first-person stealth, players need to know when they’re visible or not. In first-person melee, enemies must have clear windups and a discernible attack range. These baselines extend to smaller aspects, as well — things like flashlights having batteries that last longer than two minutes, and maps that give correct spatial information.
Syndrome gets all of these things wrong, and includes a dozen other dealbreaking moments besides.
I’ll start with the positive, which won’t take long.
The ship where game takes place looks gorgeous. With maximum graphics settings enabled, the lighting creates an impressive mood. Darkened hallways with flickering lighting offer ominous atmosphere, and killer robots whose chest-mounted floodlights swing from side-to-side throw long shadows.
Syndrome has the most attractive spacecraft this side of Alien: Isolation, although its design is more mid-00s — sort of a Riddick by way of DOOM 3 aesthetic. The moments when the game works come down to the sound of footsteps echoing through metal halls as an indistinct shape looms in the distance, possibly benign, possibly deadly. The reveal of that shape never once lived up to its potential, but on many occasions I found myself holding my breath, and that’s entirely down to the work of the graphic artists and sound designers.
So that was the good. Moving on to the not-so-good, Syndrome‘s problems start with its story. It’s basically a rehash of System Shock 2, with the RPG elements stripped out and replaced with Outlast‘s ‘hiding from monsters’ mechanics.
The player wakes up in a ship overrun by a malevolent force which is transforming humans into cyber-zombies, and when given the opportunity to pick sides between the military attempting to wipe out the zombies and a mysterious stranger intent on bringing the plague ship to a massively populated area, the main character inexplicably goes with Option B. I haven’t seen a narrative so nakedly and awkwardly force its characters into bad decisions since Spec Ops: The Line.
The stealth mechanics are a complete wash. It’s never clear when I’m visible or not, and it’s a mystery as to how enemies find me. There’s one monster who explicitly tracks based on sound which gave me something to work with, but the silent crouch-walking players can do is so slow as to be nearly useless, the corridors are so narrow that the creature will bump into me anyway, and every unlocked door on the ship automatically opens whenever I’m anywhere near it, instantly attracting the beast — and that’s how bad it is to deal with the monster whose rules I understand. The others? Unknowable and baffling ordeals.
Adding salt to the wound, whenever I found myself being chased, my only chance for survival was to find a hiding space and conceal myself. Classic stealth design, except the devs crank the soundtrack way up whenever the monster is in pursuit, drowning out the sound of its footsteps. This obvious gameplay mistake robbed me of the only way to know whether my hiding spot was working, and it was baffling to see. This isn’t rocket science, it’s Square One stealth design and Syndrome gets it wrong.
Combat is flat-out terrible. When forced to fight zombies, the player has a wrench because this is essentially SS2 fan fiction, and what should be perfectly acceptable parry/riposte mechanics are ruined by two factors. First, the player takes nearly a second to start parrying when the block button is pressed, making it nearly impossible to time defense. Second, any defense is impossible when an enemy’s wind-up inflicts as much damage as the swing.
No, that’s not a mistake — as enemies pull back their arms to swing their weapons, the player takes damage, and then takes more damage on the actual swing. It’s insanely bad, and since enemies don’t meaningfully stagger when parried or damaged, the result is functionally unplayable combat. I spent the majority of my six hours with Syndrome running past enemies and accepting the free hits they’d get in as my price for not having to suffer through combat.
As for game-breaking bugs, I always debate whether to include them in my reviews. They’re usually patched out quickly, but sometimes they’re so egregious that they have to factor in.
In this case, Syndrome frequently asks players to interact with computer terminals. Sometimes, the terminal will come up without a cursor for interacting with the buttons, but without the ability to press any buttons, the player can’t accomplish anything, and can’t even back out of the monitor screen. The menu button also stops working, forcing players to quit the game and load their last save. Hopefully it was recent, since there are no autosaves.
Also game-breaking is the distraction mechanic. Players can pick up and throw bottles to briefly redirect the attention of zombies. Unfortunately, if the player moves too close to a wall, the bottle will shatter prematurely, leaving the player with nothing to throw, yet unable to leave the ‘throw’ mode. Again, the only remedy is to shut down the game and reload. Also, the game’s UI would sometimes fail to load, forcing more restarts.
Syndrome might offer a beautiful ship to look at, but it’s a buggy mess that fails to get the essentials right. This lovely ship can’t make up for an ugly everything else.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Camel 101. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 7 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: The game is not rated by the ESRB, but contains blood and gore and intense violence. It’s pretty standard sci-horror here. Horrible cyborg zombies, severed limbs everywhere, messages written in blood, corpses hanging from the ceiling. Absolutely, under no circumstances can this be considered as appropriate for kids.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: While there are subtitles that keep you up on the plot, there are no visual cues for the sound of zombies walking around, robbing you of the only warning you have that you’re about to be killed. It’s essentially unplayable for the hearing impaired.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.