Sylvio seems like quite an interesting proposition: a horror game that has you recording spooky messages from beyond the grave in order to unravel their mysteries. Unfortunately, the finished product is neither scary nor compelling.
Sylvio puts you in the shoes of Juliette Waters, an audio recordist, who for some reason wants to go into an abandoned theme park at night and tape messages from departed souls. Unsurprisingly, things soon take a turn for the worse and she's left to fight for her survival with nothing for protection but an old reel recorder and possibly the worst gun in the history of video games.
The central conceit of Sylvio is quite clever and is about Sylvio's only saving grace. You walk around its levels with a microphone while listening out for ghostly phenomena which Juliette records on her device. Most of the messages are garbled so you have to use the recorder to reverse them, speed them up or slow them down to hear what's on them. Doing this usually reveals another item in the level that you can then interact with. Keep decoding messages and solving puzzles and eventually you'll figure out how to move on to the next area.
However, while this mechanic seems quite cool to start with, it quickly becomes repetitive and usually just serves to break up the already dull gameplay by forcing you to mess around with the controls on the tape player until you uncover all the hidden messages. Furthermore, most of these messages are just isolated words or phrases that do little to make you care about (or even understand) what's going on in the world. If there is an interesting story in Sylvio, it's far too well hidden underneath an uninteresting and repetitive game to make you care about unearthing it.
This is a real problem because there is precious little else to keep you involved in Sylvio. First off, there are the terrible graphics. Without exaggerating, it looks like a poor quality PlayStation 2 game with low-res textures and a blocky and unappealing aesthetic. This in itself wouldn't be so bad if there was some more interesting level design on display. As it is, most of the stages are overly large, bland and featureless which makes them a bore to investigate. To rub it in, Sylvio repeatedly tasks you with walking across large stretches of these maps over and over. You'll frequently be given an objective several hundred meters away. Once reached, it only rewards you with a clue that leads you back in the opposite direction. It makes you feel like you're playing join the dots at a snail's pace. A run button would have at least provided some mercy but, of course, there isn't one.
Also, if you're buying Sylvio expecting a few frights, you'll be sorely disappointed. The only threats you'll encounter are black clouds of mist that occasionally follow you around. These are far more annoying than they are scary as they have a habit of creeping up on you out of nowhere and killing you before you even know that they're there (black clouds are rather hard to see in levels full of blackness). When you die, you're just sent back to the beginning of the area with no real penalty other than the banality of being forced to run (sorry, walk) back to where you just were.
Occasionally, a larger "smoke monster" will turn up. These are genuinely pretty creepy the first time you encounter one but less so when you realise that all they do is shuffle about in one place making supernatural groaning noises. Like the smaller black mist clouds, you have to defeat them in order to progress but doing so is a pretty dire affair thanks to the sole weapon in your possession. The game's instructions list it as a "shotgun" but that's overselling it. For one thing, it doesn't fire shells. It fires potatoes. Yes, potatoes. You can also pick up other projectiles for it like bits of scrap metal but even these are woefully inept against the large smoke monsters and you'll usually have to stand firing shot after shot into them then go to find more ammo and shoot them some more before they finally evaporate. In fact, the only thing the potato gun is any good at killing quickly is the game's frame rate which dips dramatically every time a puff of red smoke follows a root vegetable out of its barrel.
There are other annoyances with the gun such as only being able to use it for certain functions (like knocking over objects) when you have a specific type of ammo equipped. If you're stuck with the wrong one, it can mean another long traipse back across the map to find the kind you need. The gun also loses its "power" pretty quickly meaning you have to search for yet more items. Other general problems include some horrific platforming segments in which Sylvio's clunky controls frequently force you to redo sections through no fault of your own and frustrating puzzles that make very little intuitive sense and lead to yet more aimless wandering back and forth.
Sylvio probably sounds like an interesting little game on paper but its execution is flawed in pretty much every way. If it can even be classed as a horror game, it's probably the least scary and dullest one that I've ever played.
- + Playing around with messages in order to find clues is a cool idea
- + Concept is somewhat more original than other contemporary horror games
- - Poor quality PlayStation 2 era graphics
- - Endless wandering around monotonous and empty areas over and over again
- - Torturous platforming sections