At its core, Symmetry is an extremely simple game. Like other survival sims of its type, you're tasked with monitoring the status of a small handful of people and using them to collect resources to keep themselves alive and ultimately escape their circumstances. Symmetry boils those systems down to the essentials. Your crew members have two stats: health and hunger, which they keep topped off by sleeping or eating. They have to gather three resources: wood, food, and scrap, which they use to heat the base, eat, and repair or upgrade stations, respectively. That essentially forms the whole basis of the game, with really only one complicating factor: cold.
Your intrepid spacefolks find themselves stranded in Arctic conditions and nearly every decision needs to be weighed against the risk of freezing to death. To keep the base heated, someone has to gather wood from outside, where their health drops more rapidly. At first it's not a big problem, but the more wood the crew gathers, the farther they'll have to go to find more trees, putting themselves at ever-increasing risk of getting stuck too far out when a lethal cold snap hits. Wood burns quite quickly, meaning you'll either have to stockpile it or keep a near constant supply of lumber coming in.
The crew can survive some time in a freezing base by making use of the regeneration chambers, but that keeps them from doing other work and it can get dicey when you have fewer chambers than you do people needing help and you have to play musical chairs for healing.
I found this reliance on a steady stream of lumber to be mostly just an irritation. There are no breaks in the weather that allow you to ‘tough it out’ without the heater for a while, and no way to turn the furnace off to conserve fuel for when you need it most. The facility your crew inhabits is static as well, with no way to upgrade anything aside from the storage capacity for your various resources. I would have liked the option to improve my base a bit, maybe by adding additional health pods or food stations, increasing heaters' efficiency, or making machines less likely to break down.
And boy would that last point go a long way. Making it out alive means stockpiling scrap to spend on a few expensive systems, but that scrap is constantly being depleted to repair systems. Like wood, it takes longer to gather the more of it you've already collected, but the escalation is considerably more drastic. You're constantly using the scrap that you wanted to use for upgrades just to keep the base running. It's a staple of survival games, but I just found the economy of it off in this case. I had scenarios late in the game where a series of cascading breakdowns reduced the hoard of scrap that I'd been saving the whole playthrough down to near zero in one swoop, with nothing I could have done to prevent it. The list of components that can fail is immense (power supply, weather station, healing pods, food generator, refrigerator, furnace, and a radiator in each room) and it's almost always a life-threatening emergency when one stops working. I kept wishing that the game gave the player more leeway to decide which components they found critical and formulate a strategy around them. If I were making a wishlist, a Faster Than Light-style system of strategically diverting power would be near the top.
At the very top would probably be improvements not to machinery, but to the people who tend to it. Symmetry does distinguish its characters much more than the average survival sim, but the thin layer of personality it paints onto them almost makes their ultimate hollowness more noticeable. Throughout the game, crew members will spout dialogue to no one in particular that helps define them as characters and advance the nebulous plot. While some elements of the story are interesting, nothing ever gets fully fleshed out. Especially disappointing is a late game turn that seems to promise a severe change of plans for the crew, but fizzles before being resolved. I'm all for game narratives that aren't completely spelled out for players, but Symmetry tends to just let plot threads hang in the air.
What really keeps the story from ever getting interesting is that the characters themselves never interact or build off of each other. There is hardly any indication that they're even aware of one another. The first time I had a crew member die, I was floored by the grim choice the game presented. Either bury the body, or use it to feed the remaining crew. I was wracked with guilt, but ultimately decided to go the utilitarian route. In a nice touch, the floor around the refrigerator became stained with blood for a while, but that was the only acknowledgement of what I'd done. The dead man's comrades just sprinkled a little Jacob on their cereal and went on with their day. Some sense of characters building relationships and working together would have made them much more interesting than the drones they seem to be for most of this game.
The eerie blankness of the characters plays out mechanically as well. Crew members will continue doing whatever job you assign them until you change their orders, no matter what. They will mindlessly wander into -90 degree weather with their health almost depleted, then quickly freeze to death without a single word of complaint. There's also no way to simply cancel their orders and have them standby for further instruction. So when storms hit and you have characters who can only do gathering jobs outside the base, you're stuck following them around and ordering them to walk from one end of the structure to the other to keep them from walking themselves to certain death. This kind of tedious micromanagement gets more and more important as the game goes on, until in the end you're just babysitting a bunch of brain dead astronauts with a death wish.
All other problems aside, the tedium is what really kills this game for me.
That being said, I did play through the game a number of times. The gameplay is certainly addictive, though I wouldn't necessarily call that a good thing. But it does always seem like there's something interesting just around the corner, like if you do things right then next time you'll crack it. I can definitely see some people enjoying the extreme difficult of the game, but there was simply not enough payoff for me.
That's kind of a shame, because Symmetry certainly has promise. Despite the lack of a really interesting story, it does some interesting environmental storytelling. The graphics have a low-poly charm, and the sound does a great job of maintaining tension even when there's not much going on. But all of that is just window dressing for an experience that asks a whole lot of players and gives almost nothing in return. The atmosphere of the game keeps making me want to go back, but I know I don't think I would find anything new on my return.
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