Available on: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Release Date: June 2015 (PC), January 13th 2017 (Consoles)
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Horror fans are a hardy lot, with what we put ourselves through to get a decent scare. Regardless of medium, it usually takes a disappointing trawl through a glut of derivative haunted house or found footage snore-fests to find that truly unnerving gem. The one that leaves an impression lasting long after the credits roll. Horror in games is no exception. With the success of indie darlings like Outlast, there are many, many out there that attempt to parrot the formula with little to no effort applied to differentiate themselves from the crowd. After a while, they all just blur into a boring haze of muddy textures and cheesy jump scares, devoid of innovation and true originality. As such, it’s a real treat when a rarity like Sylvio is unearthed.
Sylvio is a marvelous example of psychological horror done just right. It’s not really a new game, having already been released on Steam in mid 2015 and for some reason, taking all that time in between to launch on console. While that makes it a fairly old title especially when it’s aging visuals are taken into account, the unique central focus of it’s innovative gameplay gives it the edge that easily makes Sylvio stand apart from the rest of the horror crowd. More on that later though.
The game places you in the role of softly spoken protagonist, Juliette Waters, a sound engineer who has a special talent for recording EVP or electronic voice phenomena. Juliette steals into the Saginaw Family Park in the hopes of communicating with the spirits of the poor souls who perished in a tragic event there, several years earlier. Without trekking into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say that in the process of her investigations, Juliette discovers something much darker went on among the rundown amusements at the Saginaw. That’s where I’ll stop; uncovering the sinister secrets just beneath the surface of the dilapidated park is the most enjoyable part of this creepy tale, by far.
The Saginaw is rife with EVP and Juliette comes loaded with a special microphone designed specifically to record these distorted message from beyond. The narrative slowly plays out as each spirit voice is discovered which makes for a truly novel approach to unraveling the mystery of what happened. It also creates a seriously tense atmosphere as you strain to pinpoint where that peculiar and unsettling sound is coming from. You won’t really see many of the apparitions that Juliette stumbles upon but with the help of the microphone, you can record and decode the tragic circumstances that led to their awful demise.
The ghostly recording and deciphering mechanic in Sylvio is what raises it above it’s horror brethren. Messages come through garbled so you will need to examine them via Juliette’s old school tape reel device which allows you to change the speed of recordings and even play them in reverse. Happening upon these lost souls is disconcerting but hearing them recount the details of their passing in a disjointed, haunting jumble is much more disturbing, to say the least. The developers have accomplished something here that many similar titles cannot, all without a single cheap jump scare. Hearing that crackling static suddenly punctuated by otherworldly voices is genuinely chilling, which is exactly the feeling decent horror should be creating. It reminded me of playing Silent Hill all those years ago, bumbling through the fog with only the radio static to guide me.
Unfortunately, like Silent Hill before it, Sylvio is also plagued by some janky combat. Honestly, I’m not even sure why the shooting is even included, I think the ghost recording concept is more than enough to carry the title. I actually believe Sylvio would be a better game without any combat, it kind of feels a little out of place. As you explore the creepy Saginaw, you will happen across black, floaty blobs that will need to be shot in order to progress. Juliette discovers a spud gun early on that enables her to shoot various projectiles including nails and tennis balls, of which there is an infinite supply so you never need to worry about running out of ammo. These blobs can kill you instantly but there is no real fear involved since they float really slowly and you can just hammer the fire button then run back and reload. You will come across the odd larger enemy that takes the form of a giant shadow person but the same holds true with these guys as well. To me, the combat just doesn’t gel with the overall feel.
The park is made up of several large, distinct sections, both indoor and out. Traversing the open areas can be a trial on foot so there is an option to drive a car to your destination instead. While gameplay revolves around the spirit recordings, each area also has a few physical puzzles that need to be solved, usually involving the acquisition of special items enabling you to progress to the next area. Most of these are fun and well designed. However, once again the gun is required to obtain some objects and due to the floaty controls, a few puzzles are made unintentionally infuriating. At one point, I needed to shoot a tire to knock it down from some scaffolding and it ended up being blind luck that I eventually hit it after countless attempts. The loose aiming and inconsistent arc of objects in flight made it very difficult.
There’s not many horror games around that take place out in the light and Sylvio is no exception. Visuals are dark and moribund and the environments seem perpetually cloaked in a strange crimson fog that gives everything an odd red tinge. The Saginaw is eerily empty which perfectly fits with it’s rundown, decaying aesthetic. Don’t expect big splashes of color though, everything here is browns and grays coated in that weird red haze. It’s quietly unsettling, as is the sound design. Music is virtually absent, except for the tune that plays while driving the car. Effects are excellent across the board which is fortuitous as Sylvio relies so heavily on audio for gameplay and narrative progression.
The indie market is flooded with horror games. It takes something interesting and inventive to make a title stand out. While it has a few issues with combat, Sylvio definitely has that special something. It’s a unique take on psychological horror that manages to be frightening without resorting to cheap scares. The ghost recording concept works perfectly, weaving a harrowing tale that unfolds at just the right pace. Turn the lights down and listen….the dead are calling!