Review – Synapse

Beginning of every stage. Text says "Save the World" With a Defiance plant gained from upgrades

Does the prospect of wielding telekinectic powers and tons of different guns in a virtual reality environment sound enticing to you? It certainly did for me! The thought of simply looking at an object with my eyes and moving my hands accordingly, just so said object could move around doing my bidding, felt like the perfect idea for a VR game. Thankfully, nDreams’ latest outing, Synapse, ended up being exactly that, and in a wonderfully crafted package to boot.

"Kill All Enemies to Open the Portal" A command given to us when we enter the mind.

I command thee!

nDreams, developer for many VR games like Little Cities, Frackedand the upcoming PowerWash Simulator VR and GhostBusters: Rise of the Ghost Lord are not new to the VR scene and their experience definitely showed with Synapse. Making great usage of PSVR2’s features such as eye tracking, headset haptics, and adaptive trigger, Synapse makes for a very fun and satisfying roguelite VR game.

The game has you playing as an agent infiltrating a mind and fighting off its defenders as you traverse the nine procedural generated stages; from the preconscious, conscious to the subconscious. You wield telekinetic powers which will help you in this task. Every time you fail and die, you’re sent back to your hub where you spend your skill points that you earn through completing tasks and challenges to make your next attempt easier. The game is a rogue lite, which means that every attempt will be slightly different and will force you at the beginning with only your character progression through skill points the only thing you keep with you onto the next run.

Challenges called Revelations allows you to gain Insight to spend on skill tree

Gain Insight from Revelations.

Strengthening the Mind

For a roguelite, character progression is just as important as the journey, because it needs to be satisfying in order to incentivize the gamer to keep going. The way that Synapse has done you focus on challenges and tasks called Revelations, in order to reward you with skill points called  Insights, takes away from some of the RNG of your growth.
You’ve killed 30 enemies with your SMG? You’re given some Insight! Killed enemies by hitting them with blocks using your telekinetic powers? More Insight for you! And you get to choose where to put them on the three skill trees depending on your playstyle.

The skill trees are called Tactician, Assassin, and Survivor.
Tactician improves your mind and telekinetic powers. This tree is crucial if you want to turn the tables by being able to control more than just barrels and cubes, and be able to control the accuracy of your telekinetic controls, move your enemies, and even catch the grenades they throw at you!
Assassin tree improves your gunplay. Unlocking more guns to use, the maximum level you can improve them during your runs, as well allowing you to wield two at a time!
Survivor is perfect for making you last longer (but not in the way you’re thinking). Extra health, more currency regained at the beginning of each run, more health pools in the stages, etc. One even makes you like Sekiro with two lives!

Screenshot of the skill tree with three main trees: Assassin Survivor and Tactician

Three Trees to Train From.

For some games, they use RNG as a way to create a sense of replay value and game length because you don’t know what skill you’ll get from your runs, so in some way, because Synapse allows you to control your character progression, they’ve made their game “shorter” which is one of the main drawbacks of this game.

Example of a temporary upgrade allowing you to choose between an upgrade to your telekinetic power or an SMG

Telekinetic upgrade or Gun?

The things you pick up in your runs are ranged weapons and upgrades. You start with a pistol, then later unlock more like an SMG, and a shotgun, as well as the option to carry two weapons at a time. You can also gain perks: one from completing a stage, and another optional one you can buy using in-game currency called defiance. The last option makes you choose between a better version of your gun, a different gun, or an improvement on your telekinetic powers. However, these are all temporary as you lose them upon dying.

Getting through to the end is difficult at first, where you’re meant to fail several times so you can complete the challenges and earn some skill points which will then be your permanent character progression. However, since you control your growth, you get strong really quickly, which is really fun and satisfying, but also hinders the replay value of the game because you end up completing it quickly.

Touch the Mind

One of the things that this game excels at the most is the intuitive gameplay. nDreams has done a fantastic job utilizing the exclusive features on the PSVR2 which really made playing it a satisfying experience. The game gives you decent mobility in terms of jumping, vaulting, and climbing where your hands can interact well with nearly any surface. The duck and cover mechanic works well with the gunplay using one hand to grab and surface to duck down and the other shoot, or if using the other hand, you can use your telekinetic powers.

Too lazy to run around to get to a place in a higher area? They have an identical climbing mechanic as Horizon: Call of the Mountain! The best part of it all, is how easy and fun it is to use your main weapon: Telekinesis. With eye tracking (which you have an option to NOT use) tracks whatever your looking at quite accurately, and if it’s something you can affect with your powers, it is highlighted purple. At first it’ll only be blocks and explosive barrels, later on you can interact with the enemies themselves as well the grenades they throw at you.

Speaking of explosive barrels and grenades, the game utilizes the Sense controller’s adaptive triggers where pressing the trigger on the half way point allows you to grab the item, and fully pressing the trigger makes it explode. And BOY DOES THIS FEEL GOOD and POWERFUL! 

Screenshot of the first stage. Monochromatic areas with few highlighted things to interact with

Hit them with Blocks or Hide behind them!

Not only does the ease of use for your powers feel good, it also makes sense and can be used (unfortunately?) to cheese some of the bigger enemies. For example, one of the first things you can interact with using your powers are these cubes littered around all stages: You can pick it up and hold it up with you powers to completely block the barrage of bullets enemies shoots towards you, because these cubes are indestructible. You can also use this exact same block to completely stop a giant brute from charging towards you. Again, this might be a bad thing, but this made one of the “mini bosses” or difficult encounters in the game, to be moot. Honestly, I didn’t care, because it felt too darn good!

The Sound of My Inner Monologue

One of the things in the game that I really appreciated was it’s use of sound effects. The overall ambiance and background music leans into the quieter side which really enables you to hear all the sound cues. When used correctly with either a headset or earbuds, this allowed me to anticipate attacks and most important, what enemies are on it’s way to me. One of the number one causes of my death was this enemy that explodes upon death as well as them running towards you to explode, and they come at you in hordes especially in the later stages. Luckily, there’s a distinct sound for when new enemies spawn as well as the sound they make when they’re rushing towards you. 

The Colours of My Mind

The game has very bland and abstract areas. Elevation, platforms, and stairs don’t make sense, and every time you die and re-enter the mind, things are different. This idea is actually perfect with the lore and storytelling of the game. As if you are in a dreamscape, where you’ve entered a mind or memory and it only focuses on the subject and everything else is colourless or out of focus. This helps us as the player with visual cues because only the things we need and can interact with have any saturation and it works with the lore!

However, even though the colours are mostly “bland” and monochromatic, the textures look very good. The materials are distinct and well done. They utilize many surfaces that shiny and it creates good looking reflections. The visual cues for the things we can interact with look great as they creates great contrast against the monochromatic background. 

One of the unfortunate effects of the game only having nine is that there are only 3 distinct different locations and it got a bit repetitive. It also didn’t help that the stage generation was not varied enough and left many assets in exact places as before which made enemy locations, upgrades, and exits to be predictable.

the setting of the early stages of the game is bleak and broken. A monochromatic world

Dream state is often weird, unrecognizable and devoid of colour

Synapse does have many things it excels at: satisfying character growth, decent enemy variety, and fun replay. However, it does feel as if it’s incomplete. Biomes look very similar to each other, and while the gun feels good to use and is intuitive, with how much thought they put into telekinesis, gunplay is definitely left in its shadow. Your quick character progression become, which satisfying, becomes it’s hindrance as the game can be completed quickly. I am not someone I would ever consider a good gamer, and I was able to reach the end on my fifth attempt even with not having half of my skills filled out. Once you’re able to do that, getting from the first stage to the end takes about 1 hour.

It is a game with an amazing foundation, an excellent usage of the PSVR2’s features, and really fun gameplay, and it leave me wanting more. It was all too brief. I am definitely looking forward to whatever nDreams decides to do in the feature, and I absolutely recommend grabbing Synapse up as one of the must-have titles on the PSVR2’s evergrowing and ever impressive library.

Graphics: 8.0

Most of the setting is monochromatic because it’s inside a person’s subconscious. The vibrant colours comes you and the different gameplay elements. Great textures, and art style. Downfall could be how it can be bland at first glance.  

Gameplay: 9.0

Roguelite gameplay loop with satisfying upgrades. 
Intuitive controls using eye tracking and Sense controller capabilities makes for satisfying play. Telekinetic powers are powerful, easy, and fun. 

Sound: 7.0

Relatively minimal in this category. Background music is minimal. Sound effects plays a decent role for ensuring you hear the enemies. Wearing a headset will help determine where enemies are. Different enemies has sound cues and can save your life.

Fun Factor: 10

Though short, the roguelite and satisfying gameplay makes it a very fun game to play! A very good PSVR2 package and a must play on the platform!

Final Verdict: 9.0

Synapse is available now on PSVR2

Reviewed on PSVR2

A copy of Synapse was provided by the publisher.