Synapse is a game I've been passively interested in since seeing the first trailer in the PlayStation Showcase. Being intentionally esoteric, its trailers are designed to make you question what it even is.
This being said, leaving players in the dark can only go on so long before they're left fumbling around for the light switch. That mystery has to pay off in some way. Though there's still a mystery at the centre of Synapse, the most recent trailer tried to address this somewhat.
After being invited out to sunny Farnborough and playing just under an hour of it, I've left with a lot less questions, and it is much better off for that. Though simplistic in approach, I sense a depth, both mechanically and thematically, that I can't wait to dig deeper into.
The first thing I noticed in Synpase is that art style. With a monochromatic colour palette, shootable objects and lootable items are a vibrant red and purple. This not only works thematically, but gives you a very clear objective in almost every scene.
This is an excellent choice for a VR game, as it trades out huge graphical fidelity and lifelike textures for something that feels intentionally designed. Though the start of the game goes for a certain realism, the main game itself is a mixture of somewhat cyberpunk-style enemies and near-brutalist architecture.
Initially, this can be quite confusing down to how unique everything is, but your eyes adapt quickly. This is true for the game itself.
A no brainer
In Synapse, you play an operative trying to hunt down information gained by a double-crossing agent. As he won't speak and you don't have much time, you have to go into his mind to retrieve it yourself.
In there, obstacles, architecture, and enemies are all defence mechanisms to keep you away from the secrets his mind holds. Though I was promised an intriguing story, I didn't quite get one in the gameplay. The setup is interesting and provides a backdrop for compelling theming but I'll have to wait for the full game to see if all that style pays off in the narrative.
Setup in a rogue-lite fashion, you have to do three successful runs to see the conclusion of the story, with each run uncovering just a little bit more of the world and rationale of the main cast. As you are trapped in the mind of the sergeant, you are left constantly taunted by him to just get further in. This dynamic is an interesting one much like that of Handsome Jack in Borderlands.
Synapse's gameplay is both reminiscent of early VR and a product of how far it has come. With your dominant hand, you hold a gun. Then, your other hand allows you to grab onto rocks to use as temporary cover and a telekinesis move, throwing barrels in the air and even grabbing enemies. These all come together to make you feel like a demi-god, capable of killing tens of enemies in minutes.
The rogue-lite loop gives you access to skill trees that can give you new telekinetic powers, make reloads and healing quicker, or just generally make moving through levels more easily. It didn't feel hugely sophisticated but has enough depth to make subsequent runs feel significantly different.
You earn an in-game currency through kills and by activating fountains, that can be spent at the end of a run on something new. Skills stack, meaning you are rarely told to make a build - rather told to just get more powerful. This is a system that may leave old-school Rogue fans looking for a little more, but I was left pleasantly surprised with what was on offer.
A real power fantasy
For me, the game peaked when I had access to the game's best powers. In the late game, you unlock an ability to throw enemies up in the air, and this can result in smashing them into each other, throwing them into exploding barrels, or popping their head up for a simple headshot. In some roguelites, feeling overpowered can ruin the fun of earning those new skills but I didn't feel that here.
Though I'm still left on the fence about the story and don't know how it will scale difficulty long-term, I really liked the brief snippet of Synapse I got to play. After taking off the headset, I felt my fingers itching for the feel of the PlayStation controller, just to get one more shot off.