Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you’re a member of some form of shadowy government organisation, and you’ve been sent in under cover to find out the story behind some form of subterfuge or rebellion from an enemy of the state. The bad guy has lots of defences you have to penetrate to get to the good stuff, and it’ll get increasingly tougher as you go, while revelations make you wonder if you’re the good guy at all. Synapse may not be the most original of takes on a story, but it’s damn fun, and you can throw barrels at enemy’s faces to kill them. You in yet?
The thing is, while that story is a bit played out, the delivery system for it is so video gamey it’s unreal, and it works.. You start by creeping into a posh looking cliffside apartment, making early use of the climbing mechanics that let you both get higher, but also duck behind cover. Jennifer Hale‘s voice offers back-story over a radio, and at the critical point, both aurally and visually, you discover an unconscious Colonel Peter Conrad (played by David Hayter) in a weird futuristic bed that’s keeping him alive and is connected to his head. You’re going to have to go into his very consciousness (and sub-consciousness) to get to that core and win the day.
Virtual reality has offered fans of the FPS a whole new way to play their favourite genre for a while now, and Synapse is no different: a mixture of gunplay and telekinetic powers, asking you to go after waves of enemies, clearing them out before moving on to the next level, and getting deeper and deeper. The monochromatic environments are crisp and clean, only broken by bursts of colour from things you need to be attracted to, like explosive barrels. After your initial (forced to fail) run you’ll unlock telepathy and can toss the multitude of objects at the enemies, which is all well and good, but Synapse actually uses the PlayStation VR2’s exclusive functionality as well.
For instance, using eye tracking (though you don’t have to if you prefer not to for some reason) you will highlight the object you want to grab hold of, but it doesn’t even stop there. Due to the triggers on the controllers, you can squeeze them all the way to make a barrel explode instantly, or you can lightly feather it to pick them up and toss them at the enemy… and then squeeze them to explode the enemies along with it. A neat idea, but I confess that I struggled slightly with the depth part of movement. There seems to be some slight auto aim, but the enemies are squirrelly and move about a lot, and while tossing blocks side to side, or dropping them on their head is easy enough, forward and backwards is less easy. Also, the telekinesis is always mapped to your off-hand, and I would have liked to be able to switch this on the fly, making it a bit more high-intensity, action wise. You can move parts of the environment too, and Synapse is a pretty tactile game, all told.
As you’d expect from any decent roguelike, there are multiple weapons and ways to improve and progress. You are offered challenges that carry from run to run (in-run progress is reset each time you die, so you can’t keep guns you finish with), and completing these gives you skill points for a tree that does offer a lot of options pretty quickly. Within a few runs I had unlocked the option to have a health pool in each level; an uzi to pick up, and by the third or fourth run I had unlocked the option to throw enemies themselves.
There’s a real feeling of progression and that you are working towards something with the game, instead of it rubbing up against you, which in a genre that sometimes delights in brutalising the player, is quite a nice touch. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t easy by any stretch, it’s more that the progression feels inclined to let you get better, quicker, instead of punishing you for not being immediately great at everything.
One important thing to note is that the upgrades do make it easier (of course) and feel better, overall. Early doors you’ll be forgiven for feeling like the gunplay itself is a bit wonky. It’s fine, but I felt like my aim was truer than the in-game replication, and headshots aren’t always easy to pull off. That said, by the time you’re unlocking mid-run options to curve your bullets (at a reduction of damage) and using an uzi, it’s not much of an issue.
While Synapse does look great, some of the audio could have used a little work. Your cuff-based radar shows you enemy positions, health, and how many foes remain (as well as your currency for spending mid-run that’s dropped from enemies) but it almost need not bother. The directional audio is excellent, but ruined by the fact that some of the enemies just do not stop talking. As a friend of mine would say, “they’ve got more rabbit than Sainsburys” (other supermarkets are available), and the constant barking and chirruping could definitely do with being toned back a bit. You can jump into cover using your hands, but I often ended up going full guns-blazing in the early stages because I wanted to shut the enemies up quicker.
Synapse feels like a game that takes advantage of the relative youthfulness of virtual reality as a delivery system. As a bunch of ideas tacked on a wall, it might not seem that unique, but it’s the sum of its parts, and feels exciting and new, offering a one more go feel that is at the core of many of the very best VR games out there. It may not blow VR-veterans away, and there are some mechanical aspects that are simply too fiddly to be successful, but it’s a damn good time and offers a reason to keep putting that PSVR2 on your head, even in the hot and sweaty months, and it’s probably the best nDreams game to date.
A great idea, well executed
Lots of replayability
You can throw enemies like ragdolls
The enemies are too talkative
Story feels like it's been done before