Review: Sylvio 1 & 2

Sylvio 1

I might be a little late, so this review is for those who haven’t played the game a couple of times already, or for those who played the original version (released in 2015) and might be interested in the completely remastered version (released in 2016).

I first learned about Sylvio 1, made by Swedish, solo developer Stroboskop, back in 2015 watching an LP by John Wolfe. He later also played the Sylvio 2 prototype (which is now sadly not available any more). I bought Sylvio 1 soon after, but never got round to playing it until now. In the meantime, the developer released a remastered version, which is what I played. Since I never played the original version I cannot list all the changes made, but from what I’ve seen, the remaster includes automated parts of the inventory (to limit the amount of scrolling needed), more directions on where to go (especially when driving), improved graphics, added subtitles, so quite a few improvements.

I would say that Sylvio 1 is a puzzle game with a spooky theme: it starts out with a few simple environment puzzles, like clearing a blocked way, or prying open a locked gate, but quite soon more complex puzzles of increasing difficulty are introduced. Sound is a major part and analyzing what you hear (and normally won’t hear) around you is introduced from the start, using your microphone to communicate with what might still be lingering (so-called “electronic voice phenomena” as explained early in the game), or gain access to hidden items. Using an old reel to reel player/recorder instead of a modern, digital variant, adds to the spooky vibe as the reels spin up and down.

There are no jump scares (except maybe the developer’s splash screen 😉), and the game is more creepy than scary. Communicating with the ghosts can be pretty intense, since you have to listen closely to what they say or else you might miss important clues, and sometimes disturbing or instilling a feeling of unease. The ghosts are more often suggested than shown, but there are times when you have to fight some of them — using one of the best (and possibly the quirkiest) weapons I’ve seen so far in a game: you’ll understand what I mean when you find it.

The story has to be pieced together as you delve deeper, and was pretty interesting with a few twists, albeit a bit “all over the place” and with one unfortunate horror cliché thrown in. I think everything connects without any obvious plotholes, although I haven’t fully pieced everything together yet. Don’t play the game for the story alone, but for everything else: the developer has squeezed in a lot of great stuff to enjoy and explore (exploration is rewarded).

Quite a few have mentioned bad voice acting, but I disagree (even strongly): I quite liked how the main protagonist was delivering her lines and thought it made a lot of sense for her not to be loud or pushy. For the other voice actors, I could hear a bit of an accent, which might be immersion breaking if one is extra sensitive to that sort of thing (considering the characters are supposed(?) to be North American), but that didn’t bother me at all (although I probably speak English with a bit of an accent myself, so maybe I’m biased).

Sound is mainly provided by the environment, but the game also has a great soundtrack mostly heard when you’re driving between levels, so if you want to take a break and just relax for a while, without leaving the game, you can drive around while listening to the music and, like I did, crashing into trees a lot (I’ve always been bad at in-game driving, although lately I’ve gotten better at it (I recently even managed to beat my first racing game ever (namely In Search of Paradise made by Henke))).

I think the best thing with Sylvio 1 is that it dares trusting the player to find their own way with just the right amount of clues and directions. There are no obvious quest markers, and the ones that are there can be turned off, have to be “fought for”, and also never broke immersion or got in the way. With that said, though, I think some of them could have been removed altogether, because they were pretty obvious, or maybe the microphone could have been used more often for finding important spots.

If you are like me, you can get a lot of play time out of this: my first playthrough took around 10 hours, then I went in again to try and get more achievements and find more parts of the story, so now I have 16 hours (as reported by Steam). There are a lot of Steam achievements (I have only 68 percent done so far) and story elements I’ve missed, so, if time allows, I’ll go in again.

Before concluding I should mention one bug still in there when solving the pool door puzzle: I put the cart in its place, quit the game, and when I got back, the cart had turned non-physical and I could no longer interact with it, which meant I couldn’t solve the puzzle the intended way and instead had to do some creative climbing by repeatedly pressing space while moving forwards against the wall and fence in a certain spot.

Can I recommend Sylvio 1? Yes, definitely, I loved every second of it and I think you would too if you’re into puzzle solving, first person exploration, or sound analysis. On the other hand, if you are obsessed with superrealistic graphics, then you might want to play something else: the game has its own unique style, which I appreciated, but others might not. The crudeness in style is, in my opinion, well compensated by gameplay, atmosphere, soundtrack etc, so, even if you are obsessed with graphics, but like the other things I’ve listed, then give it a try. Even if you played the original version and didn’t like it or never finished it, you might want to try the remastered version. Buy it, play it, play it again, buy it for a friend, and make them play it again…

Sylvio 2

I should start by mentioning that this is a heavily stripped down version of what was originally planned: due to a failed kickstarter campaign (to my utter surprise: with the first one being such a great game and the prototype showing so much promise, I though Sylvio 2 would have no problem getting funded, but maybe it is a niche game with too small a following!?), the developer ran out of funds and sadly had to cut a lot of the things shown in the prototype. Because of this, I find it a little hard to review: with the proper funds, I am certain that Sylvio 2 would have been a great game (even better than the first game), but, for obvious reasons, I cannot review a game that doesn’t exist and instead have to review an incomplete game (although I’m hoping, possibly in vain, that the developer will one day be able to finish the game that could have been). I should also mention that I both backed the kickstarter campaign and later became a patron, but I won’t let that in any way affect my review. With that out of the way, let’s begin:

I played Sylvio 2 before Sylvio 1 and enjoyed it for what it was, but after having played the first game, I was also really disappointed in what the second game became, and even more so after having watched someone else playing the prototype (which I had luckily forgotten about). Had I played the two in the correct order, I might not have enjoyed the second one at all: The reel to reel player/recorder from the first game was gone and while it could have been replaced by a similar device, but with video recording/playback capabilities added (as shown in the prototype), it wasn’t. What we instead got was a mere shadow: the handheld camera was gone, the monitor with editing controls was gone, and instead we got a simple tripod, which could only be placed at very specific spots, and a fullscreen view of the recorded footage, with the illusion of actually editing a video as shown in the prototype, creating a wall between me and the ghost world around me, protecting me from it and taking away the sense of immediate immersion and the sense of possible danger. With the exclusion of the things we fought in the first game, the danger and threat of a possible death was also gone. Overly obvious quest markers, which couldn’t be turned off, had been added, and made me simply go from place to place, like a herded sheep. The quest markers could at least have been disguised by using the microphone (from the first game) as a homing device, but weren’t, and even the microphone was gone. Then, to top it all off, the most cliched thing of all things cliched turned up in the form of a pentagram and the accompanying ritual.

I could say that the whole thing turned into a generic, steam horror game, but I won’t, because it, although just barely, managed not to. Although almost all the things that made the first game so great was gone, we could still analyse ghost sounds, which was great, but to get that I could simply have played the first game again. The added ghost videos, while pretty creepy and well made, didn’t add much at all. The puzzling from the first game was also gone and we didn’t get many puzzles at all — if even any. My favourite weapon was of course gone too since there wasn’t anything left to gun down. The story got pretty cheesy towards the end and while the ending sort of made sense, the story as a whole felt too disconnected from the events in the first game (especially the transition between the two) to make sense as a series.

Now, it may sound like I really disliked everything about Sylvio 2, but I honestly didn’t. It wasn’t great, but I still enjoyed it: being able to “borrow” the captain’s boat and go from island to island, while listening to the engine and the horn (and the music too, I guess, although now I don’t remember it much) was nice (it even made me reminisce a little 🙂 ), the boat’s navigation system was a nice touch, exploration was still rewarded, it had the same spooky atmosphere and unique style of the first game, sound analysis was still in, and most of the things shown in the prototype were still there (although in a disappointingly rudimentary form).

If I were to instead review the prototype, I would mention the metal detector, the video editing, the hand-held video camera that could be used anywhere (just like the microphone in the first game), it being in daylight, the puzzles, and the cliffhanger ending as all exciting and indeed very promising highlights, and I think the developer has clearly shown that he is capable of making a great game, so — even if Sylvio 2 didn’t turn out to be so great (it could have, but didn’t) — I’m still interested in seeing what he might come up with next.

First time I played, this took 6 hours to finish, and I might not bother playing any more, except maybe for checking out the remaining achievements (I have 83 percent done already).

So, you might ask, can I recommend Sylvio 2? Hmmm, well, I want to, but it depends on how high you’ve set your expectations: if you expect things to be like in the prototype, then no. If you played the first game and expect the second to be like that, or even better, then no. If you haven’t seen or played the prototype nor the first game, than you might enjoy the second game (just make sure you play the second game before the first; that will save you from the worst disappointment and also make you enjoy the first game even more). If you have played the first game and didn’t like it, because it was too hard, had puzzles, didn’t have enough direction, or you really prefer obvious quest markers and a game being “on-rails”, then, yes.