Signal Simulator and the Subtle Art of Atmosfear

note: This game relies heavily on player discovery and I strongly recommend that you not look up anything further about it if you’re interested in playing. This “review” covers only the barest essentials of the core gameplay loop and everything else is simply a recollection of my experience playing. I’ve intentionally avoiding discussing anything that could be considered a spoiler.

Signal Simulator can be summed up very simply by the quotation that’s show as you load the game.

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” ― Arthur C. Clarke

At it’s core, Signal Simulator is a game about being alone while not being entirely sure that you are, truly, alone. You’re left to your own devices to run a SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) outpost in a nondescript American desert with nobody around for miles except the occasional nondescript helicopter delivering another round of supplies. Your primary task is to search the skies for anomalies in the form of rouge radio waves and attempt to make contact with whatever is (or isn’t) out there. Additionally, you’ll need to perform upkeep on the station, making sure the array of radars remain aligned and keeping the solar panel farm powering your whole operation clean so they can generate power at an optimal rate among other things.

All of this sounds fairly straightforward but Signal Simulator’s greatest strength is in its simplicity. You repeat these basic tasks day in and day out and pretty soon you get into a groove. You become comfortable and eventually this complacency breeds paranoia. (Why do the doors all have locks on them?) This is all helped by the fact that things take time to get done in the game. Even just running outside to clean off the solar panels can take two or three minutes. It’s mundane at times but the game itself is so engrossing that even simple tasks like this can feel rewarding. You’re the sole person in charge of this station and it quickly becomes your home. I definitely felt a sense of attachment to it as time went on and I wanted things to run at peak efficiency, even if that meant prolonged trips outside to recalibrate the radars. In all of this, you get caught up in your tasks the paranoia can start to set in as something as simple as a door or a light can set you off. Didn’t I close that door when I left? I thought I turned those lights off. Didn’t I park the car over there?

It’s at this point where you may start to wonder where this is all leading. What exactly is there to this game? How far can it go? Is this all building up to something? This is the true beauty of the game. It’s an unknown quantity. For all you know it could go on forever as a simple radio simulator game, occasionally giving you upgrades to make your life easier and stopping there. On the other hand, what if you do make contact? What if there really are aliens? What if you’re out on your regular rounds and run into one? Not knowing what the game may or may not have in store for you is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. I’m reminded of another quasi-horror game I love called Verde Station that plays with solitude in a similarly powerful way and I highly recommend checking it out.

Because of this uncertainty, you’re forced to rely on your eyes and ears and, as such, the game’s sound design plays a huge role in how you experience the game. It both creates and shatters the player’s sense of security in equal measure and it’s easily one of the most effective application of sound in a horror game I’ve ever see. Instead of a soundtrack you’re treated to the ambient sounds of the desert and the beeping and whirring of your old-school equipment. From top to bottom the sound design in the game is excellent.

From the small click of a light switch being turned on to the satisfying clunk of a knob on your equipment being rotated and even the distant sounds of a choir of radar dishes rotating in unison, each sound is clear and definitive. Early on, the sounds of your daily chores create a satisfying background noise but in time you become so used to it and anything out of the ordinary, no matter how simple, can set you off. The first time a thunderstorm blew through the outpost I nearly jumped out of my seat. The sound of thunder was so far removed from my expectations at that point that it took me utterly by surprise.

You’re eased into a sense of unease as your radars being to pick up transmissions from beyond the stars. The eerie, otherworldly signals pierce the low hum the machines and being to infect your mind. Like trying to see shapes in clouds, your mind begins to race as you read meaning and purpose into these seemingly random signals. Here again, the sense of complete and total mystery beings to shroud your mind and you can’t help but wonder what it all means. Is there really anyone out there?

This simple fear of the unknown, sprung forth entirely from the players own subconscious, sets the stage for Signal Simulator and does so effortlessly. Never once if my first few hours of the game did anything feel forced. There were no jump scares or spooky musical stings or outright attempts by the game to unsettle me in any way. I was simply left alone with my thoughts and the horror came from within in the most natural and beautiful way. Psychological fear bred from isolation and , never once suggested directly by the game itself.

For now, at least, the fear I’m experiencing is solely my own fault. Paranoia has gotten the better of me and I honestly love it. But who’s to say what will be responsible for my fear after a few more hours of playing? I cannot wait to find out.

Signal Simulator is available on Steam for $19.99 USD and I highly recommend you check it out.

First Impressions – Trove

 


Trove by Tirion Worlds

Trove is an open-ended voxel adventure through countless realms filled with quests, chests, and enemies great and small. It’s a potent, cube-shaped brew of RPG features combined with the thrill of exploring procedurally-generated worlds – and the unlimited creative freedom to build your own!

Developed by Trion Worlds, the company behind other MMOs such as RIFT, Defiance, and ArchAge, Trove is a departure from the standard MMO. It’s most easily compared to Voxel-based open world RPG Cube World, although while Cube World is still in an early alpha state, and the fate of its development remains to be seen, Trove moved out of an open beta and launched on July 9th of 2015 as a Free to Play game.

At first glance, Trove may be compared to games like Minecraft or Cube World, and while the games do share some similarities, Trove is much more than just another clone of a popular block-based world building game. After several hours of playing, I’ve come to see Trove as a combination of dungeon crawling loot-based RPGs like Diablo, and crafting/building games with a well-defined, linear progression such as Terraria and Starbound.

Dungeons themed to the present biome dot the procedurally generated landscape. Biomes are all uniquely themed, from the basics like Medieval Highlands and Desert Frontier, to more interesting biomes like Neon City (a Tron-style city full of robotic enemies) and Candoria (with cotton candy grass, chocolate lakes, and gumdrop mountains).

While there aren’t a large number of dungeon layouts in each biome, there are a wide enough variety to keep things interesting. While smaller, single-boss dungeons are more common, there are also much larger three-boss dungeons spread through the world. Each of these larger dungeons contains two bosses of a similar difficulty to the single-boss dungeons, as well as a much harder end boss.

As you run around the world completing these dungeons, the loot will begin to pile up. Much like in Diablo, the majority of equipment that you come across will be of little use to you. You won’t be getting anything that isn’t for your current class (thank goodness) but most of it won’t be an upgrade either. Fortunately, the game is designed to have a purpose for all of that excess loot. All of your unwanted gear can be broken down into crafting materials via a Loot Collector installed at your home.

This is where the Minecraft elements come into play. You’re given a plot of land called a Cornerstone, which follows you around the world, and can be summoned from scattered locations in every world.

A Trove Cornerstone

The home building in Trove is one of my favorite aspects of the game. Games like Minecraft have certain elements that see at odds with themselves. Exploration is rewarded, but you’re also encouraged to build up structures for storing your crap and general self-preservation. Trove solves this issue very simply, by allowing your home to be access from almost anywhere. You’re not tied down to a single location and you can go and explore the world without having to worry about finding your way back, or rebuilding everything because you found a nicer hill to bulid your house on.

All of your progress in-game goes towards building more advanced structures back at your Cornerstone. In the beginning, you’ll be building different portals that take you to higher level worlds. Very similar to Diablo’s difficulty settings, the enemies and the loot scale to the difficulty of the world, ranging from Novice, Adept, Elite, and Master, all the way up to the Uber worlds which go from Uber 1 to Uber 6 (again, similar to Diablo’s Torment difficulty settings).

You’ll gather the resources from mining and deconstructing loot in order to build to portal to the next adventure zone, where you’ll fight stronger monsters and get better loot and progress towards making the next adventure portal. At the endgame, Trove offers some different adventure zones to mix things up but I’ve not yet reached a high enough level to go into this in any detail.

Adventure Portals

As much as I enjoyed my initial experience with Trove, it was marred by some serious server issues. There was an entire day where the game was down, and even after coming back up I’ve been experiencing a variety of different lag types, including block lag (where you’ll mine a resource, only to have it pop back into existence moments later) and issues with hit detection, resulting in un-killable enemies.

There are several things which I haven’t been able to fully explore yet, such as the Marketplace where you can trade items to other players (this unlocks after a certain Mastery level), and the microtransactions, of which there seem to be very many (although not nearly as in-your-face or pay-to-win as other F2P MMOs).

While I haven’t felt the need to pay any money to the game yet, I have noticed a few instances of UI elements being held behind microtransactions, which I’m never a fan of, although for almost every item or service in the game that is available for the premium currency, it is also available for an earnable currency, albeit for a higher price. Still, I don’t like the idea of having to pay to unlock additional slots so I can sell more than two items at once on the marketplace.

Network issues aside, I’ve very much enjoyed my first several hours with the game, and plan on spending several more hours with the game very soon.