Synapse sees you wield guns and telekinesis inside someone’s mind, Inception-style. We go hands-on with a highly promising action game…
If you’re one of the 600,000 and growing owners of PlayStation VR2, you may be wondering where exactly the new and exclusive games are. Because, Horizon: Call of the Mountain aside, they don’t seem to be coming from Sony’s studios. Fortunately, there’s a reason to be cheerful on the way, as Synapse launches this summer exclusively on the headset courtesy of veteran VR developer nDreams. After about an hour of being immersed in its monochromatic world, we can say it’s set to be a unique action game that makes full use of the hardware’s unique features.
In Synapse, you’re a highly trained operative on a mission to stop a crazed former black ops colonel from unleashing Armageddon. The twist is that you have to do this by infiltrating the colonel’s mind, which takes the form of a dangerous, ever-changing and fortified battlefield with soldiers manifesting from the villain’s consciousness. Those soldiers must be dispatched so you can journey deeper into your target’s mind and extract the crucial intel that will thwart his plans.
In other words, Synapse is a cyberpunk Inception meets Apocalypse Now (the colonel’s surname Conrad is an overt reference to Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad, which in turn was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War masterpiece). In gameplay terms, though, our first thought was Remedy Entertainment’s Control.
You hold a gun in your dominant hand, with pistols eventually replaced by other weapons you’ll discover, such as machine guns or shotguns – the caveat being that you can only have one in possession at a time. Handling guns in Synapse soon feels like second nature, as you reload by hitting the grip against any object – usually your other hand – while there’s enough recoil to ensure you need a steady aim to pull off headshots.
It’s when your non-dominant hand comes into play that Synapse really becomes something special. Armed with the power of telekinesis, you can grab, move, fling and smash objects and even enemies. Given that this is all taking place in someone’s mind, having a telekinetic power makes perfect sense, and there’s even a cool feature that makes it feel like you’re genuinely using your brain’s supernatural energy. With the use of VR2’s eye-tracking, you can simply look at an object and then squeeze the trigger to pick it up. For other VR2 releases like Horizon: Call of the Mountain or Rez Infinite, we’ve run into issues where the onscreen reticle gets a bit too jittery, but in Synapse, as our eyes immediately highlight a crate or explosive canister, the mechanic feels spot on.
This is also helped by the striking artistic direction, where the world is rendered in black and white while important details – from enemies to objects you can interact with to the portals that take you to the next level – are highlighted in colour, predominantly a neon pink. It not only gives a fast-paced action game readability, but it’s also a gorgeous aesthetic in its own right, and really pops when you kill the last enemy that unlocks the next level. The look really makes Synapse stand out from other cyberpunk games.
Telekinesis is undoubtedly the highlight, though, especially because, when it comes to gunplay, we found ourselves struggling to pick off enemies from a distance. But when you can swing objects around with your mind, good aim is less of an issue. We grabbed boxes and slammed them down on a soldier’s head, or used them to push enemies off a platform.
Your wrist has a device that tracks your health as well as enemy locations, but when an enemy speaks, the 3D audio also helps identify whether their voice is coming from around a corner. In these instances, we found we could drag a crate and then sweep it around the side to land damage. While the Sense controllers get the 1:1 motion down accurately so you can push and pull objects in quite accurately, we also got access to an upgrade that makes this even easier by using buttons to push and pull objects.
It’s the explosive canisters, however, that proved to be our most effective tool. Sure, you can shoot them like red barrels in old-school shooters, but it’s even more fun to pick them up with your mind, move them next to an enemy and then detonate them. It’s here where the Sense controller’s adaptive triggers are crucial, as picking up barrels is done by lightly squeezing the trigger before you pull it all the way back to trigger the explosion. The sound of your enemies’ screams provides a satisfying and hilarious indication that you’ve hit your mark.
When you’re not on the offensive, your hand can also reach out to any surface or object and turn it over by holding either the L1 or R1 triggers. You can also move your arm to lean in and out of cover while gripping the trigger. It’s a cool mechanic taken from nDreams’ previous PSVR1 game, Fracked, though even the dual-wielding sort of stems from the studio’s earlier multi-tasking game, Shooty Fruity.
There were even more telekinetic abilities we weren’t able to test during our hands-on, such as grabbing enemies or throwing back grenades lobbed in our direction. Ultimately, these actions depend on your luck, as Synapse is structured like a roguelite where upgrades and gear are randomised for each run, with the game providing a choice between two upgrades at different junctures. This, of course, also means you should expect to die quite a few times – though Synapse isn’t too brutal, as not all progression is lost and there are opportunities to recover your health during a run.
It’s also nDreams’ way of addressing criticism towards the incredibly short Fracked, as the roguelite structure naturally allows greater incentive for replayability. The developer has also teased that players will need to complete the game multiple times if they wish to experience all of the narrative, delivered through two voice-acting legends – Jennifer Hale as your handler and David Hayter as the colonel, which also marks a reunion for the two actors since Metal Gear Solid.
A VR game that makes us feel like a telekinetic bad-ass, Synapse could well be the must-play for PSVR2 owners this summer. Whether it will prove to be a killer app for the platform, given the absence of a game from Sony itself, is a tougher question to answer. Ultimately, it’s all just a state of mind.
Synapse releases on PlayStation VR2 on 4 July.