They say in space, no one can hear you scream…
Though, in Syndrome VR's case, that may be because it's attempts at horror would fail to elicit a scream in the first place.
Syndrome VR, by Bigmoon Entertainment, is a survival horror experience that takes inspiration from titles such as System Shock and Alien Isolation [EN: Christ, at this point, is there a title out there that doesn’t take inspiration from System Shock?]. From the latter, Syndrome apes many elements to varying degrees of success. You find yourself on a spaceship where something has gone horribly wrong, evident by the dead bodies of crewmembers littered around the ship and computer logs that hint towards some sinister occurrence in the recent past. Unfortunately, one of the things that Syndrome borrows from Isolation is the painfully slow and boring start to the campaign. And, while Alien Isolation sported incredible production values, near photorealistic graphics, and a tense, menacing atmosphere, Syndrome VR does not carry these elements over.
Worse than this, however, is the fact that this is not a proper VR title despite its name. At this point in the lifespan of virtual reality, consumers expect certain things from games. While a lack of motion controls or room-scale may have flown back in the Oculus development kit days, these are basically a minimum today. Syndrome, which has been out for sometime sans VR, has not had its campaign reworked, instead only offering a quickly forgettable Survival mode that can be played in VR. Your only options for controls are a controller and keyboard and mouse. Targeting enemies involves moving your head to aim. On the plus side, the game performs flawlessly, and the graphics are serviceable. What's not-so-great is the enemies who fail to evoke even the tiniest bit of fear or dread as they move in a slow linear path towards the player. These alien-zombie creatures won't even react to your bullets until the killing blow. While Bigmoon Entertainment gave the VR version of the title away for free to anyone who owns the original, the fact remains that these are listed as separate titles on Steam; with the VR version being ten dollars more expensive than the standard one. With so little here to entice VR consumers, charging $30 dollars, versus the regular version's $20, is larceny.
As for the main story mode itself, which can only be played using a standard monitor, it, too, fails to impress.
The voice acting is poor, and the textures are passable, but not spectacular. Syndrome does sport some impressive lighting, however. The first hour or so of the title features no enemy encounters, meaning the only gameplay consists of walking and picking up key items. Most tasks involve progressing through the linear story up to a certain point, until a locked door means you have to travel slowly back through the ship to find the item needed to progress. This structure is repeated throughout the entirety of the experience. Furthering the tedium of these fetch quests is the maze-like design of the spaceship that doesn't feel like an authentic place, but rather an annoyingly over-designed videogame setting that only exists for padding out the length of the title. Due to the linearity of the campaign, there's virtually zero tension for the first chunk of the title, as players will quickly realize that there'll be no danger until you've progressed to the point where monsters are introduced. As such, the title becomes a glorified walking simulator inside a creepy space ship setting.
When enemies do turn up, things hardly get any better. Both combat and stealth fail for their own reasons. Stealth is relied upon, more out of obligation, than an actual fear of being seen. Since enemies take quite a lot of damage before dying and can deal pretty devastating attacks, most players will choose the silent approach. Most pure-stealth titles, like Thief or Splinter Cell,have complex mechanics and a high level of player control to ensure that something as potentially mundane as sneaking around remains interesting. While most survival horror titles don't have this level of complexity in their stealth mechanics, they compensate with legitimately frightening enemies. When I played Resident Evil 7, my heart pounded whenever I tried to escape an enemy, as these encounters were intense and chaotic. With Syndrome, I have no fear of the enemies, as their poor animations, dumb AI, and predictable behavior makes them seem more like inconveniences than true threats.
Taking on enemies directly in combat also is an exercise in frustration. As I mentioned earlier, enemies have zero reaction to being shot and, combined with their bullet-spongy nature, the combat feels dull. On the positive side, the weapon models are very well done with fairly intricate details, and when fired, they have a nice ‘oomph’ to their sound.
The Verdict: Average
While I respect that Syndrome VR attempts to pay homage to some of the best titles in the sci-fi survival horror genre, it neither distinguishes itself with new ideas nor does it improve or even match the elements it lifts from these titles. Its campaign is filled to the brim with backtracking and padding, and when anything of significance happens, this, too, is let down by poor stealth and shooter gameplay. Furthermore, the tacked-on VR mode is not up to the industry standard and doesn't justify the higher price. The most hardcore fans of the genre may be able to overlook many of its flaws, but as it stands, there are much better options out there.