Platforms: HTC Vive (Reviewed), Oculus Rift

Syren is a VR horror title for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift from developer Hammerhead VR that, while visually and atmospherically impressive, lacks much of the polish you would expect from a $20 VR experience.

The result is an interesting and somewhat engaging VR title, but one that’s hard to recommend by any other standard.  Ultimately, this is the result of numerous technical issues that extend the relatively short playtime as you struggle to learn exactly how the title wants you to play. Unfortunately, these issues also steadily reduce the impact of the atmosphere and the creatures you encounter until they’re little more than disturbing blips on your radar.

That said, even with more than a few frustrating issues, Syren has potential and could easily evolve into a quality VR experience if given a healthy dose of polish, but until then it really isn’t worth the $20 price tag.

Underwater Anomaly

As you would expect from the name, Syren pits you against a group of semi-female, semi-human creatures called Syrens who are just waiting to send you on a trip to the briny depths. Your objective is to stay alive as you make your way through five short, Syren-infested levels while unraveling the mystery of the Syrens' birth and collecting keycards to unlock the next stage.

This task wouldn’t be terribly difficult if your colleagues hadn’t genetically fused the Syrens with various human bits to transform them into viciously angry killing machines. It’s kind of like grafting bionic legs onto a shark: cool in the planning phase, not so good in practice.

Stepping into Syren’s world is rewarding in and of itself. The environment is well designed, pretty, and generally makes you feel like you’re experiencing an almost Alien: Isolation-style adventure under the sea.

Unfortunately, although the world feels distinctly like a research facility or a space ship, it doesn’t spend as much effort conveying the atmosphere of actually living in a world underwater. It’s far from Bioshock, where the underwater city of Rapture constantly creaks, leaks, and bellows in response to every vibration. Instead, the audio is eerily silent and only broken up by the sounds of the Syrens themselves, as well as varying degrees of blaring alarms and warnings about the constantly increasing levels of radiation.

This creates a tense atmosphere, but it’s an atmosphere that loses its luster once you learn to identify the threat level of each sound. Blaring klaxons and sirens after a while are just random noise, while the much toothier Syrens are identifiable by three sounds: their wet slapping feet, their low alien cries, and their screams of outrage when they spot you.

All of which will raise the hairs on the back of your neck at first, but once you’ve been viciously murdered a few times they become far from terrifying. Especially because the sound carries to you despite the presence of numerous solid steel walls, curtains of heavy machinery, and plenty of locked steel doors, which makes it simple to gauge a Syren’s location, and takes much of the surprise of encountering the slimy murder-gals out of the equation.

This is partly a result of the design of the Syrens themselves. Once they spot you, they sprint across the available space and are almost guaranteed to rip your lungs out, except you never see or hear anything interesting when that happens. At least in my experience, when a Syren nabbed me, it would stick to my face like a bug on a windshield, open its mouth like it wanted to emit a scream, and then everything would fade to black.

This virtually silent murder takes away a lot of the shock factor of a good jump scare, and lacks the prowling sinister grace of being murdered by a predator on the prowl like in Alien: Isolation.

At first this felt like a saving grace, because initially the tension of avoiding a single Syren is plenty of VR nightmare fuel. But as crazy as it may sound, without a significantly scary payoff for getting murdered, it becomes hard to take the consequences seriously. This is especially true when you’re dying relatively often, which, due to the one-hit nature of the enemy, happens quite a bit.

Too Short for Comfort

Narratively, Syren offers about three hours of playtime, but it’s possible to speed through it in probably an hour and a half, maybe even less if you don’t encounter a particularly annoying glitch or bug. This falls into the category of almost uncomfortably short, even for a VR game. Especially one that you’ll likely only play through once and that has a $20 price tag.

Most of the gameplay revolves around surpassing a few simple puzzles, collecting a password here and there, and often nabbing a keycard to unlock the next elevator, all while dodging patrolling Syrens. You’ll occasionally find weapons along the way that’ll give you the option to kill a Syren or two, but usually killing an enemy will only give you a short break before another one spawns from exactly the same hole the last one crawled out of. I’m sure the intention is to keep the pressure on so the player never really feels safe, but it really just makes you feel frustrated that you even bothered carefully saving your limited ammo in the first place.

The puzzles, limited though they are, are actually a highlight of the gameplay, requiring you to think on your feet and occasionally rewarding you, Job Simulator-style, for trying something new. At one point, to get around an obstacle involving a flooded hallway and a broken electrical conduit, I was able to lean around the flashing wire and shoot what I suspected was a breaker box on the other side. This shut off the current and allowed me to avoid a Syren in a nearby lab that I otherwise would have been forced to kill in order to shut off the leak in the hallway. 

Unfortunately this ingenuity, while interesting, is rarely properly rewarded. In this case, the keycard I needed to unlock the elevator was in the lab I circumvented earlier, and I only figured this out after using the last of my ammo to kill a Syren directly in my path. My efforts were "rewarded" by another Syren spawning in the same spot just seconds later, which killed me while I was staring bleakly at a locked door and the noticeably keycard-less office.

Each death sent me back to the beginning of the level, a process that repeated itself several times until I found the keycard and was able to just rush past the second Syren as it crawled its way out of its hole. It’s a pattern that quickly made me stop caring about whether I died at all. Every death broke my sense of immersion in the world, and made me question whether I was playing my way or on the exact path the developers set out for me.

Ultimately the puzzles are an example of an illusion of choice, where there are several possible ways to accomplish an objective but only one truly right path to take, with death at the end of many of the others. Combine that with the no hand-holding nature of the game, which forces you to experiment with your character’s life, and you have a game that it’s easy to get stuck in, with no knowledge of where to go next or where you went wrong.

This can be endlessly frustrating when you don’t pick up on what the developer wants you to do immediately. In the final level of the game, you need to unlock some crane controls to deploy a small submarine so you can escape the facility. I spent probably fifteen minutes aimlessly searching for a way to accomplish this, found a terminal that said I needed a keycard, searched another fifteen minutes, then finally gave up and looked online. I then discovered that I didn’t need a keycard afterall, but needed to pull a lever that I had unsuccessfully tried to grab earlier. Apparently I had failed because I didn’t grab the very top portion of the handle.

Combine that with the numerous bugs in the game and you’re never quite sure what to do. During a key scripted event involving a kraken and a small SMG the game gives you, the kraken just kind of decided it didn’t need to finish its job destroying the scaffolding under my feet, which would then place me in a position where I could attempt to escape.

Instead it just sat there, occasionally waggling its tentacles seductively as I rained gunfire down on its squishy head. I couldn’t leave the area, but I could teleport around a small bit of scaffolding and shoot to my heart’s content.

Unfortunately, because the game doesn’t give you any sort of clue or guidance, I wasn’t sure if it was broken or if I needed to do something else. I ended up shooting the Kraken for a while, shooting at a boulder attached to some destructible lights hoping it would drop the rock on the Kraken to kill it, before finally giving up and restarting the game.

When I finally made it back down the lengthy opening level sequence, I discovered the proper series of scripted events involved the Kraken destroying the scaffolding, where it then resumed its seductive tentacle waving. So I shot the boulder again, assuming it would now fall and kill the Kraken. Again, nothing happened, so I tried teleporting down a side passageway to the left, which caused the Kraken to instantly crush my helpless mortal coil.  Cue another long level intro, and another round of waving tentacles, and I found that I could teleport the other direction down the equally inviting right hand path and make my escape, which for some reason caused the Kraken to cease its mating ritual and die on the spot.

All in all, I felt like I spent nearly half the game dodging bugs rather than dodging Syrens, which was really disappointing from a game that started out with so much potential.

Virtual Adaptation

Because Syren is specifically a VR title it’s important to discuss the actual tools that set it apart from a normal game, and how well they’re adapted to this world. This is where several of the inherent mechanisms of VR work well in Syren’s favor. Leaning around corners, ducking behind desks, and squeezing into closets all in the name of avoiding the certain death of a Syren’s embrace make for some frightening experiences.

At one point I was physically backed into the corner of a bathroom by a Syren on a thorough patrol path, forcing me to yank open one of the stalls and teleport inside, except I couldn’t reach the handle of the door to close it behind me. There was no time to reach out and grab the handle without being spotted, so I was forced to simply wait while the Syren crept down the hall toward me, entirely exposed in the open stall. My only option was to squeeze myself as far into the corner of the stall as I could and watch as the barest hint of the Syren peaked around the corner as it came to the end of its patrol.

I could clearly see this creature nearly within arm’s reach, and I couldn’t help but hold my breath, ready for it to turn my direction, see me crouched helpless beside the toilet, and rip me to shreds. Instead, I watched it slowly turn the opposite direction and continue its patrol back down the hall, allowing me to unclench every muscle in my body, particularly my legs, which were cramped from my low squatting crouch, and make my escape.

The experience was heart pounding and adrenaline filled, and was a hundred times more so because I was so close to the creature in virtual reality. There were several other incidents like this as I played through the first episode, and they were ultimately the only thing that made me want to press on when I hit a particularly frustrating bug or puzzle.

Unfortunately, this was the extent of the bonus the title received in the VR technical department. For some reason the devs chose a pretty non-standard control scheme, requiring you to pick up items by clicking and holding the triggers, but without the snap to grab features you would expect from most other VR games on the market.

As a result, if you want to hold an item for any length of time you need to continue to squeeze the triggers until you either don’t need the item anymore or your hand cramps up from holding the trigger and you swap it to the other hand. With the trigger occupied, you fire or activate the item in your hand by clicking up on the touch pad, which could also incite incessant hand-crampage if you’re, say, shooting a gun for any length of time.

Additionally, the teleport control is bound to down on the touch pad, which is inconsistent and finicky enough that you often have to search for the prompt with multiple clicks before you can move, which is more than a little frustrating when you’re trying to dodge around Syrens that may only have their back turned for a few crucial seconds.

There are also quite a few issues dealing with collision and head glitching throughout the game. It’s pretty much scout’s honor not to simply shove your skull through walls to look for enemies or to simply step through certain obstacles. There’s a certain keycard behind a locked grate before the Kraken battle that you can just step through and grab if you’re feeling unscrupulous. The game largely has no system for stopping you from doing this, like blacking out your vision or teleporting you back within the proper boundaries of the game like most VR titles. 

Reportedly some of these issues have been fixed for the Oculus Rift, but somehow they never made their way to the HTC Vive version of the game, which is a real shame.

A game that’s so close to being good

The worst part about Syren is that some part of me wanted to like it, a lot. There are some things that it does reasonably well, and more than a few things I was willing to forgive and forget in the name of liking it.

There were a number of moments that I felt actually scared and had to push through fear to continue, there were moments where I felt clever for figuring something out on the first try, there were moments spent hiding from fish-women while crouched beside a toilet that I’m sure I’ll never forget. Yet these moments were ultimately overshadowed by numerous frustrating and confusing situations, which made me want to take off my headset and ask for my $20 back.

Syren might be a diamond in the roughest shape, one that needs a lot of polish but is far from unsalvageable. With any luck the developers will eventually give it the treatment it deserves, and it’ll shine as one of the better VR horror games on the market. Until then, we recommend giving it a pass unless its price drops significantly.

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