Sylvio Review

By Mark Delaney,
It might seem uncharacteristic of a science-loving skeptic to spend his free time perusing paranormal sites and subreddits, but that's exactly how I've spent years ever since I got my first home computerat the turn of the century. I've never walked away with a changed world view — call me a 'seeing is believing' kind of person — and yet for years I've often found myself on hours-long ventures down the rabbit hole of all things mysterious and potentially otherworldly. UFOs, cryptids, and especially ghosts have been a fascination for as long as I can remember. That latter-most subject of specters and the search for answers is the basis for Sylvio, a game whose flaws cannot be denied but yet neither can its spirit, atmosphere, and surprising charm.

Sylvio

Sylvio is a first-person horror title with little emphasis on survival and much more to do with discovery. You play Juliette Waters, a "ghost recorder," as she calls herself. She lives in search of electronic voice phenomenon, or EVP, a real-life occurrence believed by some to be the process of capturing audio recordings of ghosts. Entering an abandoned amusement park with a tragic past, Juliette thinks she's found the perfect location for a night alone with little more than a recording device and a search for the truth.

Juliette's voice actor speaks in whispered tones that set a mood right at the opening narration. Sylvio is a hushed game that is told slowly and is meant to be played with the right setting. Horror titles should always be respected with the lights off and headphones on, and Sylvio is no exception. In fact, it feels like playing it another way is a waste of time, as I so briefly had to during my time with the game. If afforded such a setting, this atmosphere is the game's greatest attribute.

As you search Sylvio's several hubs on foot and by car, you'll encounter numerous voices in the static. Many of these act as the game's easily missed collectibles, and as unnerving as they can be, the mood really sets in when you analyze the audio captured during seances and other story moments. Stroboskop's efforts to mimic these supposed real-world discoveries sound authentically unsettling. On first listen you'll hear maybe a single word, but to advance the game's many environmental puzzles, you'll need to playback tapes at different speeds and directions. Finding enigmatic backmasked messages like "we're all statues down here" in slow motion is almost nauseating at times. The ambient audio of forest winds and broken-down rides is consistently basic, but special attention was paid to these tapes, the synthy soundtrack, and Waters' voice actor that combine to make Sylvio's audio design memorable.

<i>Sylvio</i> is at its best when you're using this device.Sylvio is at its best when you're using this device.

When you aren't manipulating the environmental puzzles or analyzing the murky audio tapes, what remains is combating spirits with an air rifle you find early in the game. Firing anything from rocks and nails to what I think are potatoes, this rifle allows you to fend off black orbs and the much creepier giant humanoid ghosts that regularly lurk the park grounds. Such moments consist of low-intensity combat wherein you keep your distance and fire off enough direct hits to evaporate the spirit.

Without these moments the game would feel like a well-designed walking sim-horror hybrid. The efforts to include some kind of combat thus feel lackluster and totally unnecessary. They were never fun or challenging and felt thrown in just to break up the game's loop of platforming and recording. The platforming can be a letdown, too, but only in practice and not in design, which is more than can be said for the combat. The studio would have been best to have more faith in their audio portion of the game.

Seances deliver the bulk of the story, but there's plenty more to explore.Seances deliver the bulk of the story, but there's plenty more to explore.

Despite a lack of evolution across the board of Sylvio, it was fun throughout the game to decipher messages. They will unfold the story of Sylvio just as they afford you clues to the next puzzle. It's the type of story that can be missed if you aren't paying attention as so much of it comes in these cryptic messages that together form one larger narrative puzzle. Giving more than the aforementioned back-of-the-box synopsis would only submit unwarranted spoilers, but it certainly carries an old school charm that genre fans can appreciate. That old school inspiration can be seen throughout its somewhat obtuse puzzles, its dark story, and its clunky control scheme.

Such a retro vibe comes up again in Sylvio's visuals, which are on par with an original Xbox title. There's no denying the game looks really bad. It might be one of the worst visual experiences on the Xbox One. It's obvious Sylvio's shortcomings in this area are a result of both budgetary and technical reasons and not some hearkening back to the days of Silent Hill 2, but that's ultimately where it lies; it's not pretty.

Achievement hunters not interested in the game's successes won't have a long grind to deal with, but it may be a bit of a slog if you're in it for only the gamerscore. A guide will be needed to find the dozens of voices and sheet music collectibles throughout the game's 5-10 hour story. Also, there are a few secret achievements I thought I should have unlocked but somehow haven't. They don't appear totally glitched because others on site have already got them and even completed the game, but I'm still wondering what they require. A mere 59 people on site have played the game at time of writing, so give it some time for solutions to come in. When they do, you're looking at a relatively short completion, but a boring and visually displeasing one if you aren't interested in the rest of the game.

Summary

Sylvio is a lesson in not judging a game by its screenshots. While it looks like a low budget throwaway, the game's best features mostly come in how it sounds. The memorable music and legitimately unsettling EVP recordings go far to prove its legitimacy as a tool for scaring. If you've never played a horror game, don't start here as the game requires a few too many concessions from the player. If you're a genre veteran looking for something atmospheric, retro-inspired, and adding its own unique gameplay mechanics, Sylvio is worth the trip. It's a candlelit ghost story that leaves you not breathless or horrified, but disquieted long after you step away, which is perhaps the most effective horror of all.
3.5 / 5
Sylvio
Positives
  • Effective atmosphere
  • Exceptionally creepy and tone-setting soundtrack
  • Even creepier and unique audio analysis gameplay
  • Early genre influences abound
Negatives
  • Visuals on par with an early 2000s game
  • Combat is boring and feels unnecessary
  • Less than intuitive controller scheme
  • Platforming is often clunky
Ethics
The reviewer spent eight hours alone in the park conducting seances and shooting potatoes at ghosts. Despite the end of that sentence, he was effectively discomforted. A digital code was provided by ID@Xbox for the purposes of this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.