Synapse throws platoons of standard soldiers, behemoths with couch-sized miniguns, a conga line of exploding goons, and Psycho Mantis-esque flying freaks at players at a relentless pace. It’s a constant barrage of gunfire, explosions, flying debris, and — in some cases — lasers from the sky. But despite those odds, they’re still no match for the player in Synapse — an engrossing power fantasy built around PlayStation VR2‘s intricacies.
Synapse’s power comes from two main sources: the player’s telekinetic abilities and array of firearms designated to each hand. Gunplay is somewhat standard, but still incredibly smooth. Reloading avoids the tedium seen in other VR shooters, as the magazine doesn’t need to be manually ejected and inserted before pulling back the hammer. Instead, one button ejects the magazine and it just needs to be pushed back in. This can intuitively be done on any surface, with the other hand, or on the player’s body.
Cover is similarly simple to grasp, since anything can become a wall to hide behind. Grabbing a surface sticks players to it, and allows for quickly popping in and out of safety.
Shooting is a significant part of the game, but the true magic comes from how this melds with the telekinesis to elevate the experience. Moving things around is as simple as looking at it and pushing the correct trigger, as Synapse utilizes PSVR2’s eye-tracking technology. This ensures players can pluck exactly what they want almost every single time. It’s a brilliant example of how tech can improve gameplay; it’s much more natural to grab an object by looking at it than it is to move a cursor over it. Targeted objects even stick out from the monochrome backgrounds with a blue and violet hue.
This synergy makes the player a force to be reckoned with, as they fling soldiers with one hand while blasting with the other. Success and getting to higher levels is all about knowing how to efficiently rack up kills and retreat when it gets too sticky. While not an oppressive game, failing to deal with the constant pressure of Synapse’s hordes will lead to a premature restart. Feeling like a Jedi John Wick is where the game is at its best, and its thoughtful loop is built around that.
Getting to that state takes time, though. Not just because multitasking can be tricky at first, but also because Synapse is a roguelite with a sizable skill tree that locks players out of some abilities. Skill points unlock after hitting certain milestones, which adds a rewarding metagame that makes the following run a little easier.
It sounds simple because it is, and that applies to many of its systems. While perks, spawn points, and weapons can change, runs aren’t too different from one another since it utilizes the same level layouts and four enemy types each time. There also aren’t any random or rare elements like bonus rooms, secrets, or impromptu bosses to add more layers of unpredictability.
This simplicity and relative stagnation between runs is what holds it back, since it rarely changes itself up like some of the best roguelites. Players can’t make builds or experience a new playstyle on the next run like they can with Hades or Dead Cells. Synapse is focused and doesn’t get stale over its runtime, but that’s come at the cost of replayability and variability fundamental to the genre.
Its take on difficulty also bucks genre trends, but for the better. Rather than a static main difficulty that takes a while to overcome, Synapse has three stages that escalate after each successful run and unlock another part of the ending. This steady rise levels out the difficulty curve, and ensures players don’t hit a wall. A consistent challenge is much more satisfying than making small baby steps to a finale that can sometimes feel out of reach.
Synapse Review: The final verdict
Synapse’s roguelite elements are too light, but it’s a well-designed shooter that empowers players in ways only a VR game can. Developer nDreams has taken PSVR2’s eye-tracking and adaptive triggers and built them into the game’s mechanics without turning them into gimmicks. Snatching a barrel and detonating it over a group of hostiles is as gratifying as instinctively throwing back an incoming grenade while dumping submachine gun rounds with the other hand. It all combines to make for a thrilling VR shooter that excels for how it takes advantage of the hardware
Disclaimer: This Synapse review is based on a PS5 copy provided by the publisher. Reviewed on version 1.001.000.