Lost in a spaceship full of monsters is about the worst situation one can be immersed in, what with the confined spaces, the gruesome monstrosities, and the eternal knowledge on the back of your mind that you have nowhere to run to. With that in mind, Bigmoon Entertainment’s decision to base their newest VR horror title on a doomed spaceship sounds like a brilliant idea.
On gamescom 2017, I had the opportunity to test out Syndrome VR on the PS4. I’m not an easily scared person -- on the contrary, I’m a Gryffindor -- but I must admit that being a veteran of the Dead Space trilogy, I was a bit nervous when I strapped in the goggles and entered the derelict spacecraft.
My hands-on session started on the cargo bay of the SPS Valkenburg, an exploration ship adrift in the blackness of space. In the shoes of a crewman (or woman) just woken from cryosleep, I stumbled into the darkened corridors to find them silent and oddly deserted of life.
Actually, I didn’t. What I did was spend three minutes looking around the cargo bay and talking to PR representative Ricardo Mota about the game, buying time before I had to leave the area and risk getting attacked by monsters. I know it’s a horror game, but I feel naked without my plasma cutter.
Out of boxes to inspect closely (inspecting every single game object for a third time would be pushing), I finally decided to leave the cargo bay, and immediately regretted it. The corridor before me forked into three concurrent paths, like a very scary version of a hollow Poseidon’s Trident. Lights flickered within each pathway and an unnatural darkness cloaked the distance, making it impossible to see more than a few feet in front of me. I chose the path straight ahead and started walking.
For some reason, Syndrome uses a very disconcerting snap-to look system, requiring you to move and turn with the analog, but the turning is not smooth -- instead, you rotate in increments of 30 degrees. While that might help people susceptible to motion sickness, it made me -- a man impervious to such things -- feel extremely out of place. Every time I would try to rotate around like in every game ever, I would instead turn 30 degrees in a blink and freeze in place motionless. It was frustrating and infuriating at the same time.
I walked down the central corridor at a 30 degree angle, because the camera was slightly sideways and it was making me angry. I reached a door with a lit keypad and tried interacting with it, but it was locked -- at this point, Mota informed I should look for a keycard. I turned around half expecting a monster, but found only the dark empty air of the corridor I had just left. I followed it back to the junction, and chose the right pathway this time.
A dozen meters in, the shade peeled back to reveal a body. Slumped against the bulkhead on my right, the dead crewman lay bloodied opposite a locked door, a pistol and a keycard by his feet. I went near it and struggled with the controls a bit to pick up the items, but I did, and as soon as I turned around, I heard a noise and my gut tightened. “Something’s coming”, I thought.
The demon that walked out of the darkness barely made me flinch, but it unsettled me. Standing 8’0” tall and striding menacingly towards me, the half naked monstrosity was covered in cybernetic implants. I aimed towards its head and started shooting, landing about four out of eight bullets squarely in his jaw and face. “How do I reload?”, I asked Mota. “You’re out of bullets.”, he said back. I ran.
Dodging the monster attack, I ran back towards the cargo bay, hoping to find some ammunition, but there was none. I hid inside, waiting for the enemy to walk in, but he never did. Moments later, the noise subdued and he seemed to have gone away. Immediately moving towards the door, I opened it and saw what was waiting for me in the empty corridor.
Nothing was waiting for me. It was an empty corridor. I went down the central pathway again and reached the locked door, trying to open it -- but something made me turn around and I saw the monster right behind me. I tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. I tried to melee him, but there was no button for that. I tried to run, and I died.
Exasperated, I respawned in the cargo bay. I beelined towards the dead body on the right, picked up the gun and keycard, and doubled back -- no monster appeared. I chose the left corridor instead of centre, and found a locked door which did accept my newly found keycard. Walking through the threshold, I stepped into a large chamber filled with bodies hanging from the ceiling. The room was large enough that the game’s unnatural darkness couldn’t reach the other wall. I walked forward to inspect a body, and an enemy moved out of the darkness straight at me.
A weird regular-sized creature with red-eyes, the thing came towards me menacingly and was summarily stopped by three shots to the head. As soon as its body hit the floor, two more appeared out of the gloom and walked towards me, joined by the big dude that killed me the first time. I ran around the room until I found a door, and went in.
I found myself in a bigger cargo bay, railings above me where the walkways hugged the double ceiling walls. Ahead of me, three more red eyed enemies came at me, and I started running around trying to evade them. I stumbled upon a door, which was locked, so I turned around and shot them in the head. Five shots and about 15 seconds later, they were all alive (undead?) and I was not.
Removing the headset, Mota asked me what I thought. “Very effective”, I said, “but the enemies are a bit bullet spongy”. And indeed, Syndrome is. The setting of a spaceship is naturally claustrophobic, instantly reducing your options when considering which route to take. The bullet-sponge enemies and the stinginess of resources adds an element of survival horror, and sound and video design contribute to create an atmosphere that is quite oppressing -- though the forced darkness does break immersion and constantly reminds you that yes, you are playing a game meant to scare you.
Although the game was interesting, I personally felt a few design decisions could be tweaked for a better experience. The previously mentioned camera system is definitely one of them, along with the shooting controls which involve aiming with your head and firing with the the controller’s shoulder button. Besides feeling like arrogant landed gentry, turning my nose up at enemies before shooting them in the head, it was extremely unintuitive -- weapons in life are aimed and fired using arms, but the game expects me to aim with my face before pressing the trigger. Unlike any other game ever, the act of turning my focus and focusing my gun require two separate inputs, and as a result I kept trying to aim with the analog but would instead turn in place and face a wall. It was frustrating and infuriating at the same time. Again.
Overall, Syndrome is a nice effort, but it is too particular to garner my praise. It does have potential, but that is more dependant on what your specific particularities and expectations are from a horror game. Personally, I prefer the more focused experiences of a combat Dead Space or a stealthy Amnesia or Alien Isolation, but if you like the idea of running from monsters in an indie VR horror title, definitely give Syndrome a shot.