I hate whenever somebody says a genre is dead.
When 2012 was alive and kicking, and the thought of the Mayans predictions was in the back of the peoples minds, the Horror and First Person Shooter genre were churning out clones amongst clones. Horror was practically bombarded with the same 40-jumpscares-per-sec flash games that were popular with YouTubers since they could make the stupidest faces, and First Person Shooters had to have snipers in them to appease the now defunct Call Of Duty fanbase. Thankfully, Stroboskop came through to let people know that horror isn’t dead with Sylvio.
Sylvio is a horror game that bases its scares more off of natural phenomena than big scary monsters going “OOGA BOOGA BOO”. Developed in 2015 by Stroboskop, a Swedish studio who specializes in horror and the unknown, and a word that sounds like a German sausage if said backwards, who before Sylvio, made a few attempts at horror titles that came off as proof of concept rather than actual games. Stairs and Lechuza were lackluster efforts on their part, so I like to consider Sylvio their debut release instead, as it’s the one that has the strongest impact.
In this game, you play Juliette Waters, recorder of the absu- I mean, paranormal, who decides to go to the wreckage of a former family park, abandoned in the early 70s after a landslide caused the entire park to be buried, unfortunately killing everyone that was present there at the time. Armed with an Electronic Voice Phenomenon recorder, she trespasses and tries to figure out the secrets behind it all, which MAY involve a lone survivor, a cult, and herself, while she attempts to break the curse that has trapped the souls who perished here.
See, the thing that I love about Sylvio is that is wears its influences on its sleeve but keeps them there, evolving into a whole new game with a fantastically unique identity. One look at the title and a quick listen to the ethereal score from Tråd, and you’d think “Oh, okay, this is just Twin Peaks: The Video Game” but it strays further from the light of David Lynch with further progression. There’s also a hint of Silent Hill here that doesn’t necessarily go away but again, the premise pushes it away to a small corner.
The main premise is walking through these dimly lit woods covered in dust from the landslide, and trying to see if you can piece together the mystery through the recordings you get from the static. If you stand in a specific area long enough, you’ll whip out your EVP and record the cries of the damned, which can lead to more clues, new areas to find more recordings, collectibles and clues as to what really happened here.
The other half of the game is similar to a point-and-click experience. You have to figure your way around the environment and work Rube Goldberg-like machines in order to get plot-critical materials. These can be anything from keys, to sheet music, or just forcing the ghosts out of hiding. Speaking of ghosts, the way Stroboskop approached them as a factor in gameplay works really well.
When you record some of the ghosts on the EVP, they’re not always speaking in the same speed or time-frame. They could be speaking faster or slower than the usual speech speed, so you have to edit the recording, play it at different speeds and attempt to find the word hidden in the wind. They usually offer up a clue leading to more items, but every once in a while Juliette will attempt a seance with them, asking them questions along with trying to figure out who the titular Sylvio is, a character the ghosts reference but never explain.
Paired with your EVP and a sense for adventure is a Blunderbuss-type weapon that you find in the first area. It needs compressed air and ammo to work and the ammo can range from rocks and potatoes, needed to push things out of unreachable areas or flick unreachable switches, to nails and shards of glass, used to pacify the ghosts and record their dying (second dying? dying dying?) screams. I’d say it was added to make the game less of a walking simulator, but it’s implemented well enough to brush those thoughts aside and doesn’t take away from the horror.
Juliette is an interesting character as well, her motives for uncovering this mystery are unclear and her soothing voice applies a pressure that makes the whole journey a sort of dreamlike experience. When she asks the spirits questions, there’s a reassurance with every syllable she utters, like she knows the ghosts won’t hurt her, and I can only hope she returns in the sequel.
The absolute high point of Sylvio is the horror itself, which manages to be just unsettling enough to give you nightmares. The world around you is always tinted blood red as dust and fumes overlap each other, ghosts whisper slowly in your ear that they might be behind you, and when the ghosts take a physical form, the mist forms into a black monolith that scared the living daylights out of me when it was introduced.
Really, what you have here is the recipe for a beautiful yet creepy experience. A atmospheric and haunting score, a gunplay gimmick that doesn’t feel forced, great horror and an intriguing story could add up to make a horror title on par with the greats like Silent Hill 2 and Eternal Darkness. So what kills it? Can you say “Made with Unity”?
While the visuals help to make the physical ghosts look nightmare-inducing, the rest of the game doesn’t evoke that same sense, and instead you’re aghast by how awful everything else looks. Character models look like chewed-up Play-Doh, the world is disgusting and untextured, to the point where Resident Evil on the PS1 looked better, and you suffer from a major state of deja vu, as you clip clop through the same condemned buildings every eight seconds.
Horror games can still be horror games, even when they look like corrupt NES titles, and Sylvio is still a horror game, one of the scariest to come out in the past five years. People still find the original Alone In The Dark scary, for some stupefying reason. That leads me to believe that there are people out there, other than me, who will agree with my sentiments on Sylvio.
The story also leaves nothing to the imagination. The cult that was mentioned in the game details is never shown, and their presence is only implied in backstory that you have to find by doing some stupid tasks that don’t revolve around anything. And the ending, which I won’t spoil, is one of the most bizarre events I’ve ever encountered in a video game. A confusing testament that would fit right in with the likes of Eraserhead and The X-Files.
The game released to little fanfare, with a few reviews coming out that shared the same praise and dismay that I have here, and at the start of 2017, Sylvio released for Xbox One and PS4 to, again, little fanfare. Thankfully, the playerbase it has was large enough for Stroboskop to start work on a sequel, set for release between Q4 of 2017 to Q2 2018, and I cannot wait.
If you’re a fan of unique gameplay mechanics, horror, David Lynch or all of the above, you owe it to yourself to play this game. The graphics may scare you off, but think of it as an effect of the nightmare you’re stuck in.