June 10, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
I love all things spooky, so when I heard about a game based around capturing ghostly voices in an old, creepy park, I was on board. Recording and unscrambling EVP sounded like a great premise for a horror game, and it makes for some creepy listening as you play through Niklas Swanberg's Sylvio. The game also uses sound to guide the gameplay, making your ears just as important as your eyes for picking out clues and avoiding danger. It's clever stuff that gave me the chills in unique ways, even when the game was annoying me with its floaty, awkward shooting mechanics. Sylvio's appeal varies from area to area depending on its reliance on shooting, but for the most part, the audio experience gives the game a neat appeal for anyone who loves being frightened by unearthly sounds.
Juliette Waters is an audio recordist who specializes in capturing electronic voice phenomena, one who has a special interest in the Saginaw Family Park, a huge forest park that's been left abandoned for years. It's a hotbed for EVP, with Juliette capturing some odd, uncomfortable noises within moments of entering. As you steadily follow these voices, you'll find out some really strange things went on in the park years ago, and a lot of people have died there in awful ways. Knowing that people met some terrible fates there is one thing, but hearing a person explain how they died in a distorted voice is much, much worse.
Saginaw Family Park is huge. Even most of the buildings and areas within it are large, so you'll need ways to guide yourself around. There's no in-game compass, as you're expected to use your microphone to find out where you need to go instead. The microphone has a little meter on it - a flat bar of light - that starts to blink and twist as you near some EVP. You can also clearly hear some weird distortion, like voices talking through static over a radio, as you get closer, so it's easy to follow even if you're not paying attention to the meter. Honestly, the meter only tends to pick up on things you're really close to, but if you listen, you can often use your ears to follow the sound to its source. It's a very neat way to navigate a game, especially a horror game, as it leaves you wondering what awful thing is making those terrible noises, but you have to head toward it. Knowing you have to walk straight up to whatever is making those sounds just builds up dread on the entire journey.
Often, those sounds will lead you to someone who's departed. If the meter is just bugging out, you should stay put, waiting until your recorder picks up on the voices of the dead. Sometimes, it'll pick up on faint words, which all get conveniently written down onto Juliette's notepad. I was worried I might not be able to understand what the ghosts were saying and that I would miss out on some of the game's messages, but Juliette had me covered. Also, finding out what some of these weird sounds are supposed to be saying is creepy in and of itself. You'll hear a wall of noise, followed by Juliette scribbling a series of words. My brain would then clue in to what I'd just heard, which was chilling. Pulling meaning from what first seems like distorted audio nonsense really had a frightening effect on me, especially considering you're pulling these voices from thin air.
You can get more complex messages from the ghosts in the area, too. These require you to play around with your main recording device, calling up pieces of audio that you can speed up, slow down, or play in reverse. In order to get every bit of information from these recordings, you'll need to play around with speed and direction until you can hear what is being said, with Juliette writing something down every time you hear something relatively clearly. The game conveniently puts an X beside any recording where you've found all the hidden messages, which was nice because I may have been at it forever, otherwise. After all, you're often just looking for a word or two buried in static and indistinct muttering, and I didn't always hear what Juliette did, so I might have missed it without her notes.
It's challenging to find these messages within the static at first, but after playing around with the recorder for a while, you develop an ear for when a voice is speaking. It took an hour or so, but I could soon pick up where voices were being muddled within the audio, and you quickly learn to look for these spots and play around with them, shuffling forward and reverse at different speeds with ease. A flick of a button makes doing this really intuitive, especially with a controller, although playing at certain speeds does build up momentum in the recording like it would with an old tape recorder. It gives the game this nice touch of realism that makes listening to the recordings even more unsettling. Unless you play everything at hyper speed and listen to the chipmunk voices. Not much to be frightened of, there.
There's not a whole lot fear from the ghost designs, either. The spirits of the dead are kicking around here along with their voices, but they don't look all that scary. The spirits that harm you are giant black orbs that float around, looking a bit like haunted tires wobbling in the sky. These things kill you on contact, so you do have reason to be afraid of them, but I find it hard to be scared since their designs make them look like placeholder art. I get that shadow presences have a place in ghost-hunting lore and storytelling, but these black blobs didn't look mysterious or creepy - they just looked like rogue circles. The stuttering visual effect when they come near you looks good and alarmed me when it needed to, but I just felt disappointed by what I was fighting.
There are better enemies in the game, though. There are huge shadow people that show up in each area when you've found most of the ghost recordings. Their motions have been captured well, and seeing these weird giants looming in the distance is a little creepy. They're still a little goofy in ways, too, since they're just giant people who've been colored in with black. Not great, but it kind of works and they're still a big step up from the blobs. Honestly, if the big shadow people took the place of the small blobs and I was being dogged by creepy, regular-sized shadow people, I think it might have worked better. As is, the enemy designs aren't scary and don't look that great.
If you don't like the look of them, you can get rid of them quick with your handy pneumatic gun. Loaded with air from cans of compressed pesticides, you can grab rocks, nails, tennis balls, and any other junk you find and shoot it out of the gun. Whether it's a good idea to be firing a gun that uses pesticides that were taken off the market or not is up to you, though. Anyway, sharp objects, like chunks of broken glass, can be used to get the ghosts to disappear, and blunt ones are used to hit objects in the environment. It's odd to have a combat system in a game about listening for EVP, but it works, most of the time. It's not the main reason I'd play the game, but it's still kind of fun to shoot a ghost with nails and have it disappear.
Shooting ghosts isn't bad, but hitting objects is where the game shows some problems. The gun's shots are very floaty, and the aim never felt quite right no matter how long I played. Shots glide through the air in odd arcs that make the reticule useless, and unless you hit an object just right, the game doesn't register a hit. It's not a big deal since ammo and pesticide refills are everywhere (usually in infinite supply), but I've hit things dead-on and had the game outright ignore me. It's very clumsy in its current state, with aiming and shooting feeling extremely awkward. The shots just sort of coast along, with neither the sound nor the velocity giving any indication that this impact would have any power. It's just not satisfying to shoot anything since most shots miss their mark or don't have any effect when they hit it. It's not a huge problem since you can shoot as much as you like, but it is a section of the game that takes away from the fun of collecting phantom voices.
The locales you're shooting in bring some of that creepiness back. Everything is covered with red light an fog when you're wandering the surface, giving the park this otherworldly feel. The world is naturally off in this light, as if everything tainted with rust and decay. The sparse trees help this effect, making the park look desert-like. Things just look dried up and dying - a perfect place to communicate with lost souls. This also makes the relative emptiness of the world work, as it just enhances the loneliness of the place. Since you can navigate it easily using sound, you can just enjoy the weird emptiness of the place.
The game also has a neat way of guiding the player around its huge open lands without sound. With each ghost you put down or clue you find, the game places a hand-written note out in the world. These notes hover above the land, showing the distance between you and whatever key item they're guiding you to. This helped me find items and locations that would have been annoying, otherwise, making my path straightforward. The handwriting floating in the distance somehow works with the game's world without feeling as invasive as some other forms of player guidance. It showed me the way without constantly requiring me to fiddle with a map or follow some gaudy arrow sticking out of my character. It felt like a subtle way of showing me important locations that Juliette knew about, and made getting around the world easy.
Chasing ghosts and listening to them talk was an eerie, disjointed way to receive the game's story, too. Sylvio doesn't hand out dollops of story once you beat certain areas, but rather uses the ghosts to tell the tale with a few words and phrases. If you want to know what happened in Saginaw Family Park, you'll need to pay attention to fragmented information and cobble it together on your own. This left a lot of the tale open to my interpretation, but it does provide some strong clues to guide you. It encouraged me to think for myself, but it also got me to explore the world and look for all of the extra hidden voices that were out there. It's a creepy story, if I'm right about what happened, but it felt like a story that I actually found out using my recording skills rather than one the game eventually told me for killing enough ghosts. I felt like I earned the story, and that it was worth getting.
There is a whole lot of extra, hidden ghosts out there in the world, too. You can stick to the main story and quests if you like, but there are many voices mumbling out there in the red night, waiting for you to find them. It's worth just taking a walk with your microphone to see what you can find, especially if the story gets its hooks into you. Don't expect to put Sylvio down any time soon if you want to know everything.
When you're recording voices and listening to distorted audio, Sylvio is pretty unnerving. It's eerie and vague, and kept me confused and uncertain as I played through it. Searching for meaning in sounds and the environments created a wonderful, fearful tension. The shame is that, sometimes, you have to shoot ghost tires with nails and hit unresponsive signs (that are gaudy in their obviousness) with a tennis ball. When Sylvio sticks to what it's good at, it's a great, unique horror game. It's just a shame that the gunplay is so clunky that it takes away from the rest of the experience.
Sylvio is available for $12.99 on Steam (plus %15 off until June 12). For more information on the game and Niklas Swanberg, you can head to the game's site or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.