Synapse review - All brawn

An enemy being held up in the air in Synapse

An enemy being held up in the air in Synapse

VR has always been wonderful when it comes to pure spectacle. This being said, the last few years have proven that it's a device capable of so much more. Though it is nice to have a game to show your friends, it's better to have something to keep yourself going into your tenth hour. Synapse really tries to be both, but stops just short of the mark.

In my preview of the game, I saw adventurous gameplay and some really striking visual design, but I left with worries about how they would keep you hooked into the end. Unfortunately, I leave it now just under ten hours later, wishing it could have kept me gripped like the first few.

Synapse can be great fun, but I left wishing for something a little more.

Combat in Synapse
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Firing up

Synapse starts very quickly. You are a secret agent, who is trying to invade the mind of a double agent, said to be behind a future deadly attack. You must combat waves of enemies in his mind to get to the centre and figure out the coordinates and time of this vicious attack. As a setup to a story, this is a pretty decent one. Synapse doesn't seem too caught in its storytelling, but there's enough there to remain intriguing.

You spend just a few minutes exploring the environment before you are injected into the world of Synapse. Given the game is so focused on action and moment-to-moment gameplay, this sets up the tone very well.

To put it simply, Synapse is a roguelite where you have to do runs through a mind. This involves grabbing new powers, storing resources for future runs, and completing challenges to unlock brand-new abilities. Each run will be slightly different due to the powers you pick up, but there is also a defined progression system making each run a little easier than the last.

Reloading in Synapse
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The visuals of Synapse are visually distinct in a great way. The mind you're in is monochrome and oppressive, with hints of brutalist architecture. This being said, the things you have to interact with are bright, with purples, blues, and reds. In this sense, there's a real thematic core to the art with everything necessary to progress standing out among all the grey.

This works great in VR and the crisp colours of the game really allow the PSVR2 to shine. It's not a texturally detailed game, but it doesn't need to be, as it has a distinct style that is recognisable. I was initially worried this may result in motion sickness but my time in the headset was very smooth throughout.

This adds well to the gameplay, feeling frenetic and quick. You can quite easily speedrun Synapse, and this is partially down to how clean everything looks. By simply looking at your right hand, you have an approximation of currency, enemies left in each level, and the location of each enemy. This means you can run with your right hand out and move through levels as quickly as possible.

A miniboss in Synapse
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Fighting with fire

Synapse's combat is great. In your dominant hand, you hold a gun, and in your other, a whole host of telekinetic abilities. Originally starting out with a pistol, you can unlock altars in each level that upgrade your weapons and give you access to an SMG, Shotgun, and Rocket Launcher. These all have specific use cases where they are most effective, incentivising creativity in each encounter.

To reload, you simply hit a button and push in the mag from the bottom of the weapon. This is simple but allows you to reload quickly on the fly. You quickly figure out small mechanics like smashing your gun against a rock or even your own body to reload your mag. This allows your other hand to work on throwing blocks, barrels, and humans around while you do it.

At its best, Synapse allows you to take on multiple enemies at a time, flinging bad guys out of cover and blowing up barrels behind you. It simultaneously makes you feel like an overpowered god and that you could die any second. This is a hard balance to strike and Synapse gets it right around the middle of the game.

One of Synapse's most impressive mechanics is the way it utilises eye tracking. Enemies and boxes you want to grab are highlighted based on where you look with your eyes. This means you can look at an enemy, hoist him in the air, and blow up an enemy in your periphery with ease. It combines this with a cover mechanic where you physically grab rocks to move and everything flows together nicely.

Combat in Synapse
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Upgrades, upgrades, upgrades

In each run, you are given a currency that can be spent on healing yourself up and unlocking new powers. As well as this, you can choose a new upgrade at the end of every level, keeping you constantly powering up. This is a proven formula for roguelites and works well here. New powers are engaging and fun, giving you more powerful explosives, lock-on bullets, and more.

Unfortunately, the range of powers throughout the game does seem fairly limited, meaning you get a handful of the same powers through most runs. This isn't hugely off-putting, but cuts away a little bit of the replayability roguelites are known for.

Run-to-run progression starts happening very fast as you are given a new type of currency for doing specific challenges. In a successful or near-successful run, you could do ten of these challenges, giving you tonnes of upgrade tokens. These upgrade tokens can give you extra health and an extra life in each run, or can give you the ability to pick up enemies or throw back grenades. Upgrades are striking and powerful.

Piecing together the story

To fully "beat" the game, you have to do a successful run three times, though you can play through it more to learn as much as possible about the world. This gives an intentional three-act structure, playing on the espionage and secrecy of the spy genre. Voiced by David Hayter, the Colonel is a figure that reveals most of the game's information and it is mostly relatively intriguing throughout. The story certainly evolves, but rarely moves out of the cliches it spawns from.

Unfortunately, in order to make you run through the game multiple times, the game cranks up the difficulty in seemingly arbitrary ways. Rather than bringing out new enemies or modifiers, the game opts to throw you through the same handful of levels with just more enemies on screen. This makes the boss at the midway point of the run particularly strange, as they become significantly easier than the boss rushes either side of them.

This poorly paced difficulty leaves the latter half of the game feeling less thought-out than the former. This is a shame as the first few hours are fast, punchy, and incredibly engaging. The game slowly starts to lose steam as you get more powerful and your skills don't really feel tested in creative ways.

This is indicative of a problem I see with Synapse. It doesn't always feel built from the ground up to be a roguelite. Some mechanics clash and combat encounters feel less thoughtful the more enemies there are. It's still reasonably fun in those moments, but never really catches up to the intro of the game.

Synapse review
Synapse is at its best when you are flinging enemies around and shooting them from the sky. Unfortunately, poorly paced-difficulty changes and an unsatisfying endgame left me wanting a little more.
PlayStation 5
7 out of 10

Reviewed on PS VR2. A code was provided by the publisher.

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