First-person horror games have become so popular now that there’s a Cthulhu-sized deluge of cheap-looking ‘me too’ Amnesia clones dishing out the same ‘ooh a scary noise, ooh I’m underpowered!’ shtick that kicked this sub-genre into top gear. To stand out, you need to bring something stronger than ugly beasts and notes scattered across the game world if you want more than a passing glance and a shrug of the shoulders. Sylvio definitely brings some fresh ideas to the table, but does it bring a solid enough game to back that up?
Sylvio shuns eldritch horrors and cowering in corners for paranormal investigation and a potato gun. This is a horror about the discovery, rather than the escape. Our protagonist Juliette Walters is a ‘ghost recorder,’ out to discover proof of the existence of ghosts by capturing their voices through specialised audio equipment. This is based on a real life practice known as EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) and it’s an intriguing premise to hang a horror game on. Considering Hollywood’s penchant for the haunted in the past half decade or so, it’s surprising that there aren’t more horror games that go the Paranormal Activity route.
The plot of Sylvio sees Juliette going off to investigate an abandoned amusement park with a troubled history that’s surely rife for discovering ghostly warbling activity. Before long she ends up trapped underground, and has to find a way out. Of course, it’s not that simple, because there is indeed something supernatural occurring here, and Juliette is about to get a lot more than she would ever have wished for. Well, I think so anyway, because it’s really hard to tell how Juliette feels about anything, and often tougher still to actually hear her to begin with.
The voice actor for Juliette is soft and raspy, which is a nice change in tone for voice acting, but it’s a touch too quiet for a game that’s heavily-concerned with making you listen to noises. There’s also a startling lack of emotion to the performance, further aggravating the issue. Have a scene where Juliette should sound scared or at least concerned? She doesn’t sound all that fussed. In fact she sounds like she can barely register the breath to talk, let alone emote. It was a particularly unwelcome distraction that ripped me out of the atmosphere far too often.
The underground areas of the park, formerly prominent on the topside before disaster left them entombed, are drearily dark, and derelict. A husk of a place long since gone to ruin; that’s the impression the narration and backstory gives anyhow. The areas themselves actually look grim for a different reason.
Sylvio is a rough-looking, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. The game is easily technically and visually weaker, not to mention lazier than games that made first-person horror popular several years ago, and that constantly dilutes the impact of the intended creeping atmosphere. It’s not too shabby at creating that atmosphere either. Yet, every time you catch a bit of disturbing audio or wade through misty streets, the illusion is easily broken by the drab, textureless abyss that is Sylvio’s decrepit amusement park.
When things are going right, it’s mainly down to the use of sound rather than how the game looks. Ms. Walters uses her recording equipment as a waypoint finder and ultimately find garbled echoes of chatter. These sound bites usually mean one of two things. Either you’ve found evidence of EVP, or something not of this plane of existence is coming for you. With the regular EVP phenomena found within the game world and in seances can be played backwards and forwards at varying speeds with dials on your equipment to uncover hidden messages. At its highest point it can be genuinely unsettling (and more than a little fascinating) to find creepy messages hidden within audio, and the method of extracting them via the equipment is a smart choice, one that, regardless of anything else, makes Sylvio stand out from the crowd. There’s sadly just not enough else in the game to back it up.
Vaguely humanoid shapes and dark orbs are Juliette’s adversaries, and they bring combat to Sylvio, and combat is a far more unwelcome guest than any bloody ghost. You get an airgun, fuelled by paint cans and armed by nails and potatoes, all of which is strewn about the place. The gunplay is basic, and holds no thrill at all, if anything it feels more than a bit unnecessary. The whole combat side of Sylvio feels like it’s there for the sake of appeasing the ‘anti-walking simulator’ wretches, and that in turn betrays what Sylvio does well, which, as I’ve stated repeatedly now, is atmosphere. More so than the languid visuals, the combat spoils a potentially unsettling horror, and renders it mute.
It’s clear that whilst Sylvio suffers from plenty of avoidable issues, there’s at least a bit of personality to it. The ingredient for a rather unique first-person horror are there, but when you weigh everything up, Sylvio fails as a horror, and that should be the very least it succeeds at.