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Synapse review – pushing VR boundaries with style and ambition

Mix a Soulslike punishing VR FPS with Tarantino multiple-reference inspiration, and you get Synapse, a PlayStation VR2 exclusive!

Synapse does not fall short in terms of ambition. The game tries to give players an immersive experience with inspired yet distinct mechanics and features. It strives to push the boundaries of action-packed gameplay to create a truly unforgettable experience, and it does up to a certain extent. There is much to love but much to be deluded by with Synapse, so let’s focus on its highlights first.

Synapse is a first-person shooter combined with telekinetic abilities, which reminds me of the successful formula of the game Control. It is heavily inspired and derivative of widely popular games and other media and does not hide it. In a Tarantino style, the game provides references in abundance; we spotted several, and we are sure that readers will be able to discover plenty more.

And it starts again

And it starts again

As soon as you start playing, you will enter a mesmerizing world where shadows dance, contrasts abound, and reality merges with illusion. Inspired by directors such as Lynch, Cronenberg, Tarantino and iconic films such as “Dark City,” “The Matrix,” “Seven Samurai,” and “Inception,” Synapse unfolds in an eerie and gloomy noir atmosphere, predominantly painted in black and white ink. Yet, amidst the dark fabric, a beacon of hope emerges as players discover strength and resilience within the darkness. The monochrome palette serves not to oppress but to emphasize the glimpses of colour that render the game hypnotic. It is a visually stunning journey that challenges our preconceived notions of an FPS game. The enemies, though, look like a 3D doodle gone bad. While the scenery looks photo-realistic, the enemies look like caricatures that do not have a place in this game. The electronic soundtrack is appropriate and immersive but short of being unique.

From a VR point of view, Synapse truly delivers on its promises of pushing the boundaries of VR as a medium. It uses the PSVR2 features to all their glory, from tracking your eyes to controlling your telekinetic abilities, along with excellent usage of the PSVR2 controller’s haptic feedback.

Unfortunately, for some players, what Synapse accomplishes in terms of style, it lacks in substance.

Dive into the mind of an enemy of the state

Dive into the mind of an enemy of the state

In terms of narrative, Synapse falls short. Taking insight from movies like Inception, you dive into the mind of Colonel Peter Conrad, a notorious enemy of the state with plans for a devastating attack. The story and dialogue are an afterthought without memorable characters or story development. There is little here to justify the shooter mixed with paranormal abilities gameplay. It is not a narrative game like Control, but it doesn’t detract from delivering a solid immersive VR experience.

The core gameplay of Synapse is similar to a roguelike game where you have to play and die multiple times to strengthen your character, gaining abilities that will allow you to play further in the game. You play through areas with a fixed number of enemies to be cleared each, though, unlike a roguelike game, nothing is procedural. You will play through the same areas and in the same order, facing the same enemies but at different difficulty levels as you delve further into the game. There are just a few enemy types, three difficulty levels and only nine areas to clear. When you die, you have to go through every area again and again, grinding your way, completing “Revelations” (objectives to be achieved) that will give you points to develop your Abilities from an ability tree. The more abilities you have, the easier it becomes to go further down the areas in the game; however, it is always more of the same.

It is an arduous journey into the heart of a punishing Soulslike experience as you step into a world of unforgiving difficulty. The combination of shooting and the power of telekinesis demands precision and skill initially when the game is mainly focused on FPS (and does a decent job as so). However, once you unlock telekinesis powers, while things get much more accessible, they also get repetitive and mundane: grab the enemies, throw them around, rinse and repeat. While the fusion of mechanics was intriguing and genuine in Control, they detract from the gameplay of Synapse. Synapse struggles to define itself as either an FPS or a telekinesis game, and once you can telekinetically grab enemies, it overpowers the use of guns for most of the game. You will keep moving slowly through each area, grabbing your enemies and throwing them around as an easy way to dispose of them instead of using your FPS skills.

Moreover, the game’s challenging nature raises concerns about accessibility and inclusivity, potentially limiting its appeal to a niche audience of hardcore players. Not being a great FPS player myself, I found the game unforgivingly difficult at first. Some find this punishing but rewarding loop very compelling, though personally, having to start from scratch with a slightly better ability tree was more frustrating than satisfying. The continuous grinding of playing and dying through the first couple of levels to make enough progress in the ability tree was truly excruciating to deal with.

While the Roguelike and Soulslike discussion is a topic open to discussion, the game fails to deliver on several points. While the levels of this game boast a certain beauty, it is disappointing to find that they lack the desired variety that would truly capture the player’s imagination. While the initial visuals may leave a positive impression, the repetitive nature of the environment ultimately becomes monotonous. The limited selection of characters also presents a missed opportunity, failing to offer the excitement and diversity one would hope for. This lack of variety results in a stagnant gameplay experience that fails to evolve and provide fresh challenges. As players progress to later areas of the game, the sense of reward diminishes significantly, with little incentive to continue due to the repetitive gameplay loop and the absence of meaningful changes. The overall experience becomes a tiresome grind rather than an engaging and fulfilling action game.

It is hard to judge Synapse as an FPS game because several minor things greatly detract from the game: you can’t crouch, jump or take cover; you can fall into emptiness unpunished; there are plenty of glitches as of its release, so be ready to get yourself or enemies trapped into walls. You can climb, but it’s pointless and doesn’t serve any real purpose. Unlike a game like Doom, where the pace can change from puzzle-like to frantic. There is hardly any change of pace except for what resembles a “boss fight”. Most of the time, you will grab the doodle duds and throw them around until you have killed them all. However, as the game visuals are fantastic, captivating, and incredibly immersive, one may have a few hours of discoveries before the game becomes repetitive.

Synapse is one of those games that you will either love, hate or both. Absorbed by its beauty, one can jump to the conclusion that this game is worth becoming a cult, or one may fall into the opposite extreme, that Synapse is a mess that fails to combine too much and end up delivering too little.

Is Synapse brilliant, or does it attempt to bring a Tarantino amount of inspiration to a game that ultimately feels bland and uninspired? Well, I will open an exception in my reviews and leave it up for you to decide.

We recognize that Synapse tried hard but may have accomplished little but style. However, we must also acknowledge that Synapse may not be a game for everyone. It is brilliantly inspired and tries to combine successful mechanics that, in theory, would have resulted in a compelling game. If you are up for a tough challenge and are into Soulslike games, Synapse may be worth playing. For an FPS player, the game should last around 12 hours, and that is 12 hours of a solid VR game; it is immersive, has interesting abilities, intriguing gameplay choices and a great atmosphere. But that is the right amount of time before everything becomes mundane and repetitive. So suppose you are like me and must spend several hours grinding, doing and seeing more of the same to go past the first few areas of Synapse. In that case, I suggest you skip it altogether and find a more approachable and less repetitive game to play.

Mindful Phill

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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