Sylvio (Xbox One Review)
The horror genre is one that strongly permiates our emotions, unleashing a myriad of overwhelming feelings that overwhelm us. Players are either forced to endure the scares that the developers have in store or shy away in fear; to see the plot to finality or give in our fears and find a more comforting game to play.
Factoring in the suspense that horror can bring to a movie or video game, there needs to be some sort of payoff, a purge of the anxiety that you’ve built up over time. A turning point where your fear transforms into a comforting calm, the climax to the tension. Sylvio creates what you could call “suspense” and with what little atmosphere it has, but fails to deliver any consequence to the plot build up.
Within developer Stroboskop’s “Sylvio” you play as Juliette Waters, a paranormal phenomena expert with a seemingly nonsensical daredevil attitude. Juliette throws caution to the wind as she puts her life on the line to record ghostly voices. As Juilette Waters, you use your Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) recorder to uncover the mysteries surrounding Saginaw Family Park, although this goal is never really made apparent. The only goal you are ever given is “Survive the Night”. I genuinely had to look up the synopsis online to get my dose of story info. Intentions unknown, I set out to record some otherworldly phenomenon and throw myself into this clearly lapsing and rudimentary world.
The first and most distressing thing that players will notice is lack of design to the surrounding environments. Objects are of simple shape with very little geometry to define them from one another. Textures seem to be another limited resource as well, as the rusted landscape of Saginaw Family Park is perpetuated throughout. Be it a table, door or lampost. Sylvio is layered with the same dreadful brown and dreary rusting effects all throughout, it’s a rare opportunity that you to find two objects that differentiate so well from one another that you’d think it an illusion.
Sylvio’s lack of diversity in colour palettes does pay off now and again, giving a helping hand towards creating the overall feeling of isolation whilst the fading red mist that surrounds Saginaw Family Park hides some of its more glaringly horrible architecture and crudely designed environments.
One such setting being the hub area. A perpetual purgatory that players have to traverse to get from level to level. A vapid scene of trees and uneven jagged ground, where the vehicle you must drive gets caught on all manner of unpolished environmental terrain. Giving way to the developers actually including a “Car Reset” button which spawns the car in mid air in hopes of alleviating the problems you’ll inevitably get yourself into.
Thankfully, the individual levels you pass through in Sylvio are more detailed in design, but only slight. From funfairs to hospitals, each area presents a series of interactive obstacles for the player to wrestle with. Most of which consist of jumping puzzles and ghostly scenes.
Seances and intercepting ghostly radio waves is Sylvio’s main way of feeding the player whatever crumbs of story it has in its shallow pockets. As the player walks around with their EVP equipped they’ll detect static noises that fluctuate frequently, erratically jumping around. Once you pinpoint the source you’ll be able to record and keep notes of what these apparitions have to say. Most of which are nonsense or ,in some way slight, relates to the specific level you are in. Other more objective oriented phenomenon is broadcast to the players EVP, so they’ll know exactly where to go. Doubling down on the completing of objectives rather than needing to wander around a brashly, dull sandbox.
For Juliette to be able to record these wayward spirits words she firstly has to fire small scraps of metal out of a makeshift blunderbuss at their black gaseous visage (think black smoke from Lost), so that she can then hear the soul’s whispers. I’m not too sure how all this works and connects to make any narrative sense – possibly the iron in the metal destroys the spirits- but I decided to roll with it anyway.
Unsurprisingly, Sylvio shines the brightest through the EVP mechanics. Simply detecting a ghostly voice is the start of the process to uncovering what happened in Saginaw Family Park. Juliette stores these recordings for later revision, dissecting and interpreting who she is speaking too and what, exactly, is going on. The player can rewind and fast forward the recordings at different speeds in hopes to uncover new messages and meanings in the spirits’ words. All of which works really well and is what kept me playing on for much longer than I had anticipated. Though the main plot is rather non-existent, the audio recordings of departed beings lends credence to what happened in that particular area. Giving the player some smaller puzzle pieces to place together themselves, even if there is no larger overarching puzzle to solve as a whole. Creating smaller, digestible stories that players can interpret on their own.
However, this is what you’d call “filler” content as all of what I said is rather optional. Simply recording the ghostly echoes is enough for you to proceed onto the next waypoint, never needing to dig into the details. You may even be put off uncovering these extras snippets as they will often lead to prompting Seances or leading the player down an off beaten path which encourages our protagonist Juliette to open her mouth and speak her inaudible words. The voice acting is especially subpar within Sylvio and it’s not that I think that the actress has a particularly jarring voice, but more the direction taken in relation to Juliette and how I expected her to sound. Juliette’s shy and relaxed tone is delivered with a mouth full of saliva and the mic appears to pick up every smack of the lips and jarring audio.
As an individual who loves himself a good -or at least mediocre- horror experience I can say without a doubt that Sylvio did not deliver on what I expected from a traditional atmospheric horror game, but certainly adds a unique and innovative twist. One which I am glad I got to experience. All, or if any, of the suspense that Sylvio builds within the first hour of gameplay is expelled as soon as you come face to face with your first evil spirit, leaving nothing but a simple and bland repetitive gameplay loop until it’s obscure climax- leaving me with many questions and absolutely no answers. Juliette’s voice can be hard to understand or even hear during gameplay with the constantly echoing static from your EVP recorder, resulting in missed context sensitive dialogue or even puzzle hints.
If there was a little more time spent with developing the overall story and much more time spent creating visually desirable environments, I would heartily recommend Sylvio. However as it stands, I’d steer clear. You’d have a better time recording your own ghostly sounds in your basement than playing Sylvio.