Synapse Hands-On Review (PSVR2) – There’s something innately satisfying about wielding a Force-like telekinesis, similar to unsheathing a lightsaber, or being able to afford a house.
If you’re looking to address that first point then look no further; if you’re more inclined by the latter you’re unfortunately out of luck, though perhaps a revamp of PlayStation Home may sooth that to a degree.
Up to bat as the next compelling accompaniment to Sony’s newly minted virtual reality headset following the releases of both Humanity and C-Smash VRS, Synapse is a star-studded rogue-lite and one that turned heads when it debuted at last February’s State of Play.
Synapse Review (PSVR2) – Eagle-Eyed Kinetic Chaos
Into The Mind
Spearheaded by the voice-acting talents of David Hayter and Jennifer Hale, nDreams’ next release follows a lineage of the U.K.-based developer being at the forefront of emerging technologies, having notably jumped headfirst into content creation and ARG development for the aforementioned, ill-fated PlayStation Home.
We came away impressed with Synapse from our hands-on several weeks ago but one of the key takeaways was the question as to whether it could continue its narrative intrigue whilst at the same time escalating in the gameplay stakes, and the answer is by-and-large yes, but with some caveats.
The narrative at the centre of Synapse focuses on Colonel Peter Conrad, a once-trusted agent of the secretive organization ‘Bureau V’ who has gone rogue and is threatening Armageddon, requiring you to delve into his mind to stop the launch of a biological weapon.
In practical terms, then, the main thrust of its campaign revolves around three playthroughs of increasing difficulty which are aptly named memories, and they progress from surface to deep and finally to repressed, as you go further into Colonel Conrad’s consciousness and unravel what the story has to offer.
Each difficulty contains the same eight zones alongside an ninth ‘end’ zone, although they can be jumbled up procedurally within the confines of each of the three stages – conscious, preconscious, and subconscious – and have you battling against a set number of enemies before proceeding to the next zone.
When you’re first experiencing each of the stages on the initial difficulty there is a degree of intrigue as to how best to master the verticality, the anticipated spawn points of enemies, and how to finish as quickly as possible for a better ranking.
Between four different weapon and enemy types, randomized modifiers by way of end-zone ‘mind hacks’, and your telekinesis power, each zone presents a veritable playground to tackle as you see fit. With a bevy of mind blocks, elevators, and barrels present, do you aim to wreak flame-kissed havoc via your telekinesis or do you opt to go for a critical-only headshot run using just the starting handgun?
Moment-to-moment, then, is one of Synapse’s strengths, and once you’ve grappled with the mechanics and begun to expand out the skill trees you become a formidable force quite quickly.
This is achieved by completing in-run challenges named ‘Revelations’ which have you eliminating a certain amount of the four enemy types, using a particular gun, or finishing a run in a certain way, to earn currency called ‘Insight’.
This can then be used to upgrade abilities across three separate skill paths covering ‘Tactician, ‘Assassin’, and ‘Survivor’, which affect your telekinesis ability, each run’s weapon output, and your health, respectively.
Impressively, most of the upgrades available do have a bearing on your success, and with each unlock you’ll see your confidence and the speed in which you can complete zones increase significantly.
Take ‘Brutal Mind’ which is housed under the ‘Tactician’ skill path for instance, which allows you to use your telekinetic power on enemies directly; meaning with a flick of the wrist you can fling them into walls, other enemies, or off cliff edges.
The Dodgeball Moment
Further yet you can unlock ‘Open Mind’ which enables you to draw an immobilized enemy in towards you or further away once they’re in your grasp, and the same goes for barrels and mind blocks so you can better set traps for onrushing enemies.
It may feel a little overpowered to begin with as it’s one of the earlier unlocks but Brutal Mind has a tangible impact on how you interact with enemies in each zone.
And while other upgrades are useful at higher difficulty levels – the likes of increased starting health, or higher-tiered weapon spawns do have their use – the ability to cast enemies aside like rag dolls while you blast away with your weapon in the other hand is a game-changer for how you approach each zone. It’s effectively the dodgeball moment in Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison.
In using Brutal Mind, it does put more stress on the game’s eye-tracking as it tries to determine if you’re looking at a barrel, an enemy, or a mind block. but for the most part this works flawlessly and is one of the real standout accomplishments of Synapse. There’s something innately wonderful about eyeing up a barrel, picking it up, and bringing it in closer for inspection, before launching it and having it explode in a sea of enemies.
The marriage between your upgrade abilities and the difficulty levels is well balanced too, and as your proficiency grows so too does the aggression and volume of enemies within each difficulty level.
One of the issues, however, is nothing really changes beyond that – the set dressing of each zone is ultimately unchanged bar some small seemingly procedural aspects, and once you’ve finished the game’s three difficulties there’s little else to see.
A Solid Addition To Any PSVR2 Library
And even in that, each of the three difficulties are ostensibly the same 50-minute run. The use of newly acquired skills does mitigate this to a degree but only in service of score-chasing per zone, there’s no other real differentiators at play to keep things fresh.
The fact that it is frustrating is perhaps an achievement insofar as it demonstrates that nDreams has done the hard part by crafting a gameplay loop that leaves you wanting more. The rogue-lite nature of Synapse also lends well to short stints using PSVR2 but the lack of any supplemental post-game content or even modifiers to freshen up the challenge leaves a slightly sour taste.
Technically speaking, Synapse is impressive in parts, though perhaps lacking the sharpness seen in other PSVR2 offerings. Its muted palette with colourful flourishes works well, and its use of eye-tracking is near-flawless in its execution.
There is perhaps a small fuzziness to the image quality and the odd enemy that can get stuck in the scenery but thankfully this wasn’t experienced late into any runs so it had minimal impact overall.
All told, Synapse offers some of the most compelling moment-to-moment gameplay available on PSVR2 and while it may feel a little same-y over its three-run duration, there’s little doubting that what’s here is worth the price of entry alone.
Despite a relatively tepid couple of post-launch months for PSVR2, if it can keep up a regular cadence of releases like this perhaps it’s not all doom and gloom as some have predicted.
Synapse launches on PSVR2 on July 4, 2023.
Review code kindly provided by publisher.