Signalis Review - Screenshot 1 of 4
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Survival horror games are tough to get right. Even giants of the genre like Resident Evil find themselves leaning harder into action or simple jump scares over time, but when it is at its best it is more tense than frightening. Signalis is one of the best survival horror games we’ve played and the perfect title for Switch owners to dive into.

We mentioned Resident Evil because it is easy to see the influence that series has had on Signalis. Players control Elster, a Replika android that awakens in a crashed spaceship with fragmented memories and a mission to find her lost friend. All she knows is that she is somewhere in an abandoned mining facility that has been overrun with corrupted androids.

The androids that are seen shambling around the facility are a good stand-in for classic zombies, complete with slow movements and decaying flesh. The enemies aren’t the only thing that developer rose-engine lifted from classic survival horror classics, though. This mining facility is inexplicably full of locked doors and puzzles to solve in order to progress further. There is a locked box that requires two halves of a key to be reassembled and a door that needs five different keycards to open. Elster even moves in the same stuttering shuffle of the early Resident Evil games. All the trappings of the genre are here and have been refined to perfection by a team that understands how and when to deploy them.

Signalis Review - Screenshot 2 of 4
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Ammo and health are both scarce, so avoiding combat is key, especially in the early stages of the game. Most of the enemies are slow-moving and easy to avoid, though that doesn’t make them any less frightening. The way the music changes when they catch sight of Elster is nerve-wracking in the best possible way. The fact they will come back to life after a certain amount of time means that nowhere is truly safe, even when you’re visiting a previous floor. It is entirely possible to see yourself stranded with no health and no way to defend yourself if you’re not careful, so it is wise to have a couple of save files on the go, just in case.

The looming threat of failure is only part of what adds to the tension in Signalis. The way Elster hunches over when she is injured is your only 'health bar' unless you pause the game and look at her vitals. The music is subtle, sometimes dropping to a whisper only to roar to life when enemies approach. The sound is equally effective, making every movement feel like you’re shuffling through the hull of a ship with potential death around every corner. Signalis plays well in both handheld and docked mode, though sitting in the corner of a dark bedroom with the lights off is clearly the optimal way to experience this title.

The story of Signalis feels like someone put the Alien franchise into a blender with Twin Peaks and Ghost in the Shell and took the best bits that came out. The setting has all the tropes of a dystopian future, with corporate greed dominating life and war propaganda on every wall. The retro-style pixel art helps sell it and it all blends together better than you imagine. The plot is non-linear, with flashbacks fleshing out Elster’s past between chapters, and we couldn’t always follow what was happening, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying every moment we had with this game.

Signalis Review - Screenshot 3 of 4
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Signalis has something to say yet is smart enough not to say it outright. Questions about what makes us human, a staple of the sci-fi genre, are rightly present, but there are enough cosmic horror elements that it doesn’t feel like a rehash of other stories. It is subtle and fresh and familiar all at the same time, a balance that is incredibly difficult to achieve.

The surreal storytelling is lifted by its short playtime. You can complete Signalis in around 10 hours, depending on your playstyle and how quickly you take to solve some of the puzzles. None of them are incredibly difficult, nor are they overly easy. Many require you to recall images from earlier in the game, so you’ll want to either have a pen and paper handy or use the Switch’s screenshot function. Signalis does have a way to take pictures in-game, but it costs an inventory slot that is better served by carrying more health packs.

The most challenging part of the game is recognising when you need to backtrack to find a piece you missed and when you just need to think your way through the riddle. Even when the challenge ramps up in the later hours, it always feels manageable. The balance here is exceptional, making this game a great ride for survival horror veterans and a good entry point for those new to the genre.

Signalis Review - Screenshot 4 of 4
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

The only part of the Signalis that didn’t come together for us was the boss fights. The combat mechanics are simple but don’t lend themselves to a straight-on fight. Holding one button to aim and another to shoot is good for hit-and-run tactics but it doesn’t meld well with big battles. Fortunately, these encounters are sparing even if they can be brutal.

Everything from the sharp-pixel visual style and the sound design to the approachable puzzles serves to make Signalis a title absolutely worth checking out. Every second is tense but not because of what's on screen. It is the fear of the unknown and the knowledge that something dreadful is lurking just out of sight that kept us up all night playing it.

Conclusion

Signalis is a near-perfect love letter to the survival horror genre. Its atmosphere and tension feel natural and earned, with callbacks to sci-fi classics scattered throughout. It is at its best when you're darting between enemies, using stealth and patience rather than brute force. While some of the combat encounters felt a little forced, the puzzles are just the right mix of challenging and approachable. The surreal imagery and unique storytelling structure add to the overall polish of a game that is the perfect length for what it is. Highly recommended.